The Oct. 14 letter from City Council President Keith King to Mayor Steve Bach, distributed Tuesday to media at the end of Council’s regular meeting, began innocuously enough.
“The members of the Colorado Springs City Council,” King wrote, “wish to communicate our thoughts concerning the budget process and how we see our responsibilities under the current Council-Mayor form of government.”
That last phrase gave it away. Not “strong mayor form of government,” not Mayor-Council, but Council-Mayor.
The rest of the letter lays out the terms and conditions under which Council will participate in the 2014 budget process. Significantly, the letter is signed by all nine councilmembers. It’s not exactly a declaration of war; rather, it’s a demand for unconditional surrender.
In Council’s view, the City Charter “affirms that Council possesses the power to amend specific lines, or all lines, in the Mayor’s submitted budget.” In any ordinance appropriating funds, the charter specifically empowers the mayor to “disapprove specific line items without disapproving the entire ordinance.”
That, according the letter, means that Council must have the power to pass specific line items in the first place.
See where this is going? With a 9-0 Council majority united against Bach and all of his works, Council intends to treat Bach’s budget as a mere starting point, a document that can and will be extensively amended, sent to Bach to be vetoed in whole or in part, and returned to Council – where the 9-0 majority will undo all the vetoes.
Council plans to create a brand-new city department, a “stormwater appropriation department dedicated to stormwater operations and maintenance,” funded by a supplemental appropriation from the 2013 fund balance “to begin work this fiscal year on stormwater issues from the 2013 flood.”
And by the way, Council doesn’t think that Bach’s massive budget has enough detail, and all nine want the whole document to be restructured. Council wants “the same level of detail that is found in the 2013 annual budget and resource allocation binder on the budget detail report by Friday, October 18, at 10 AM.”
It seems clear that the Council, united in their dislike for Bach, would like to transform him from Mr. Strong Mayor to Mr. Irrelevant. He wouldn’t even have the power once given to the city manager.
Council’s budget may little resemble the mayor’s. Bach could become a figurehead, a strong mayor disempowered by a runaway council. He’ll be a city manager who doesn’t manage, a strong mayor who’s a weak sister, a highly paid employee whom no one can fire.
It’s not clear what he can do about it, other than have City Attorney Chris Melcher contest Council’s interpretation of the City Charter. In that case, we’d see a bitter lawsuit – and a paralyzed city government.
Why is Council ready to take such drastic measures?
No respect!! No respect!!! The group feels that Bach deliberately withholds information about city operations, fails to respond to their requests for information, instructs the city attorney to write vague and obfuscatory opinions that prevent them from doing their job, and fails to acknowledge them as co-equal partners in government.
It hasn’t helped that Bach is perceived as distant and imperious. As one councilmember said, “He’s never been to one of our meetings, except to show up for a few minutes, tell us what to do, and leave.” Cutting council out of the Regional Tourism Act application process ruffled a few feathers, as has his go-it-alone approach to stormwater funding.
And then there’s Keith King. The wily former state legislator knows how to seize and exercise power, and knows how to work with his colleagues. Absent his leadership, Council would not be as determined and united.
But what do the voters want?
It seems pretty clear. They voted overwhelmingly for a strong mayor and agreed to pay him about $100,000 annually. They voted just as overwhelmingly not to pay councilmembers any more than the present annual stipend of $6,250. If they wanted nine unpaid semi-volunteers to shunt aside the mayor and run the city, they might have voted differently.
But who knows?
It may be that Bach and Council will both give a little ground, and make nice. The mayor could be more forthcoming with budget details, and open up the process. It’s tough for City Council to make good decisions without good information, and the administration’s penchant for secrecy makes the National Security Agency look like a friendly public library.
Mayor, Council – figure it out! We don’t need another government shutdown to worry about.
Click here to read: City Council Letter To Mayor Re 2014 Budget Process