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City Council vs. city budget

Tue, Nov 10, 2009

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Interminable? Infuriating? Representative democracy at its best/worst? Yes.

Yesterday’s budget markup session, during which councilmembers wrangled over proposed cuts in the city budget and finally came to reluctant consensus, was the penultimate act in the ongoing drama of our city.

What was once comedy, as the city blundered through the USOC deal, has become tragedy It turns out that the city wasn’t crying wolf after all and that, absent multiple miracles, we will lose much of what we once cherished.

Some observations.

-Mayor Rivera was clearly the smartest guy in the house. He knows the budget inside out, understands how the various pieces fit together and ran the meeting smoothly and effectively. Alone among councilmembers, he addressed the various proposed cuts/revenue enhancements coherently and intelligently – and refrained from speech making.

-For a newbie, Sean Paige was impressive. At his suggestion, council agreed to fund community centers, Rockledge Ranch, the Pioneers Museum, and visitor centers for the first three months of next year. That may allow various segments of the community to coalesce around rescue plans, and save some of these irreplaceable assets from closure. And although “temporarily” closing buildings may seem reasonable, closures have consequences. As Tom Gallagher noted, “Empty buildings deteriorate quickly.”

-It was Dr. Johnson who said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Unhappily, that adage didn’t apply to Council, whose minds appeared to be not wonderfully concentrated, but sadly dispersed.

The usually sensible vice Mayor Larry Small, visibly frustrated by the city’s annual $1.4 million payment for “erosion and sedimentation control” on the Pikes Peak highway, suggested that the city just withhold the payment.

City attorney Pat Kelly gently reminded Small that the city’s payments were made to satisfy a court-approved settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, and that, under TABOR, such payments take priority over almost any other city expenditure.

Mayor Rivera noted tartly that the whole situation was the fault of/instigated by a certain “Mr. Hazlehurst” (who had noisily demanded that the Pikes Peak Highway be paved during the 90’s, thereby setting the stage for the Sierra Club lawsuit.)

-Like Rivera, Darryl Glenn was concise and to the point. After an angry three-way exchange between council members Gallagher, Herpin, and Martin concerning city employees, Glenn quickly moved the discussion away from fault-finding and toward the business at hand.

-Some council members, apparently in love with the sound of their own voices, and unwilling to deprive their captive audience of even a fragment of their marvelous musings, spoke with Seinfeldian eloquence-i.e., about nothing. Gallagher was the worst offender, although his ramblings were, as always, eminently quotable. Cliches abounded-two councilmembers actually claimed to have spent “sleepless nights” agonizing over the budget.

-Most council members seemed to believe that, like the necromancers of ancient times, they could divine the will of the voters from the election results. Other than Gallagher, not one mentioned the USOC deal (Gallagher called it “the you-sock thing”), preferring to believe that the voters just wanted ‘em to cut everything except police, fire, and potholes.

-After 2 ½ hours, Mayor Rivera finally called a break. I spent a few minutes chatting with city officials from parks, from the museum, and from other once-vital parts of the city. They were close to tears. Many of them had devoted decades to building and maintaining one of the country’s finest park systems, and a remarkable network of “cultural facilities,” only to see them threatened with destruction by a ravaged economy and antic voters.

-The entire process was chaotic, tiresome, messy and often reeked of incompetence. Council members sometimes appeared unable to understand the basics of their own budget and listened vacantly as city officials patiently corrected their misconceptions. But that’s the reality of democracy, and of government of, by, and for the people. If you let the smartest guys in the room run things, you get Enron, Vietnam and world financial meltdown. If you let city council run the city, you get blunders, correctable mistakes and occasional brilliance.

The dedicated folks who by serving on council subject themselves to such “meetings from hell” deserve our thanks. As the wise Gandalf the Grey once said, “Sometimes, all courses lead ill.” This was such a time.

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  1. Next Exit Says:

    Colorado Springs City Budget Markup Session: November 9, 2009…

    This is the first time I’ve been to a city council session and it was a rather enlightening process, if mostly to see what each member of council found most important and why they supported cutting or not cutting in certain ways. Overwhelmingly,…