Item 18 of Tuesday’s City Council agenda seemed routine.
“An ordinance amending Ordinance No. 12-108 (2013 Appropriation Ordinance) for $2,000,000 and the Grants Fund in the amount of $10,000,000 for the response and repairs required after the September 2013 flooding. (Finance – Kara Skinner).”
Skinner, the city’s chief finance officer, gave a crisp summary. Explaining that a proposed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant would require a 25 percent match, she noted that the state had agreed to split the match with the city — $1.25 million apiece. The remaining $750,000 would be used for flood-related projects that might not qualify for FEMA funds.
Councilor Don Knight had questions, as did Councilor Joel Miller. While neither put it in so many words, they were clearly worried that Mayor Steve Bach and his minions were trying to create a slush fund for their own nefarious ends. As the questions kept coming, the usually unflappable Skinner betrayed a hint of exasperation.
“We have to have this match,” she said, “or we won’t get the FEMA grant.”
Council had started its workday more than 10 hours earlier, at 9 a.m., with a special meeting of the Utility Board, took a brief lunch break, and then reconvened as City Council at 1 p.m. Thanks to the Veterans Day holiday, Monday’s work session had been rescheduled to follow the meeting.
But, amazingly, the meeting dragged on until 11 p.m., as Council considered rate increases for gas and electricity, the $1.15 billion Utilities budget, multiple business improvement district budgets and two land use hearings. Predictably, the work session was canceled.
Excluding two half-hour breaks for lunch and dinner, plus a couple of bathroom breaks, Council spent more than 12 hours on the dais. The issues before them were complex and difficult, and councilors often seemed bewildered, uncertain and unprepared.
The new system of government has exacerbated systemic dysfunction, pitting Council against the administration and forcing managers to report to two masters.
It has also given us a rookie mayor, 12 new councilors in two years and almost 100 percent turnover of senior city officials.
That’s not a sign of organizational health. If the city were a company, it’d be BlackBerry, not Apple.
The largest problem is the lack of inter-organizational trust. It’s not a stretch to say Mayor Bach is cordially despised by a majority of councilors, led by Council President Keith King. You can bet that Bach’s feelings are mutual.
Like quarreling spouses locked into a bad marriage, each blames the other for problems, be they financial, emotional or job-related. And like a bad marriage, personalities are paramount.
In the years between 1982 and 2010, the Council-Manager form of government worked smoothly and well. That’s because three successive elected mayors (Bob Isaac, Mary Lou Makepeace and Lionel Rivera) were strong executives with compliant council majorities. The organization was in fact, if not in theory, a classic pyramid, topped by canny politicians who ruled through guile, persuasion and long experience in city government.
The issues before them were complex and difficult, and councilors often seemed bewildered, uncertain and unprepared.
Now we have two governments. One is headed by the mayor, an impetuous, forceful man who just wants to get things done, while the other is split three ways. Four councilmembers are cautious moderates (Jill Gaebler, Jan Martin, Merv Bennett and Val Snider) while four are eager change agents (Don Knight, Joel Miller, Helen Collins and Andy Pico) making Council President Keith King the swing vote. The wily King wants more power, but it’s not clear to what end.
During Tuesday’s marathon, King’s shortcomings were obvious. He has no control over his colleagues (who, having elected him president, could depose him in a minute). He consented to a packed agenda, forcing appellants in two land-use hearings to wait eight hours. Lacking experience in city government, he often makes procedural mistakes.
This can all be fixed. Council can meet more frequently and limit meetings to eight hours. Procedural bottlenecks can be resolved.
But if we want a strong mayor, we’re out of luck. Bach’s not the boss, and neither is King. Neither can aspire to the power and influence of their predecessors in office, who both presided over Council and ran the city.
Twenty-two years ago, Mayor Bob Isaac had to deal with a self-important rookie councilor. When the newcomer wouldn’t shut up during a meeting, Mayor Bob knew what to do.
“Before you ask these questions,” he said, “you need to inform yourself. We need to move along.”
Bang! The gavel fell, and the meeting continued. Mayor Isaac was the boss, and the rookie knew what to do.
So I shut up.