When nine people come together to discuss a matter as singularly important to the city’s future as the Legacy Fund there is bound to be confusion and so it was last night at City Council. Confusion abounded.
The wise nine elders had already passed the city budget without comment, had approved a budget for our public transit system without a whimper, had pushed the Downtown Improvement District through expeditiously and had held a handful of quick public hearings before they got bogged down in the commas and semi-colons of a bill to manage the Legacy Fund. It was as if nine surgeons were trying to operate on a narrow part of the brain. It was sausage in the making.
The administration brought down a 13-page document which was to solemnize how some $75 or $76 or $78 million in proceeds from the sale of City Light would be used and the process through which funds would be allocated. Bottom line, the administration wanted to make the money hard to get to, essentially so a stingy, feckless council in the future could not drain the fund to pay for either their own failure to raise the necessary funds to manage the city, or to pay for a bad investment by an inept administration. So back and forth for over an hour the debate raged. Amendments were offered, some failed, some were withdrawn and a few passed. Colons were shifted to the left a bit.
The administration had brought two of our finest citizens to the table, Ian Rolland and Maclyn Parker, so important Mayor Tom Henry believed this process to be. Both men of long vision and experience begged council to reserve the fund for extraordinary purposes, not to siphon a gallon here and a gallon there to pay for operating expenses. Others said the same thing: operating expenses should and must be paid for by regular and sustainable tax streams. The two gentlemen reminded council that well over a thousand people had invested many, many hours in countless meetings to advise leaders on how best to use the money. A few council members had, themselves, been on committees that listened to nearly a thousand proposals to use the money. Almost all except, John Crawford and Russ Jehl, seemed to accept the premise, that the fund should be used for transformation purposes. Dr. Crawford seemed to want to use it for general operating expense and Mr. Jehl railed against turning the money over to private corporations and non-profits. The rest seemed comfortable with the general thrust of the agreement and supported its general principles. Council President Tom Smith proposed amendments, which passed, to make it harder for council or the administration to raid the fund, and a second amendment which would allow either the mayor or council to initiate expenditure proposals. Much of the debate was over voting rights and process, or arcane twists of the law. Mitch Harper, in a moment of brilliance, explained that the fund should be used to increase the value of public assets owned in common. Deputy Mayor Mark Becker concurred saying in effect that all city expenditures should be made to enhance the environment for business to be conducted. Their eyes met, small tears appeared, they had found common ground.
The laborious discussion was interesting to follow, but much could have been resolved in exchanges of emails. The problem last night, as with the budget hearings, is not enough time is given to negotiations between council and the administration. The city pushed the bill forward, lobbied a number of council members and hoped for the best. They brought in the big guns to make the sale and top administration voices to close it. Council, nine men with small scalpels and some rather large egos, each wanted to tweek the bill a bit, a comma here, a nuance there. While it is lovely to watch democracy in action, it might have been less confusing and time-consuming to have tossed the matter into committee. Unfortunately, each council sub-committee operates as a committee-of-the-whole so all nine add their voices to the din, each trying to clarify what the other is mumbling. The same happened during the budget hearings: after a month of hearings council members offered their cuts to the budget on a Friday, just two working days before voting on them, hardly enough time to ruminate, contemplate and ask comment from the administration. What resulted was embarrassing and confusing. Council members yammered about each cut, many of which were withdrawn upon explanation by the administration. A bit more time might have saved a few red faces.
But, that is the way council works – in a hurry.
At the end of the evening, after the Legacy Fund ordinance had been tabled for two weeks to allow further discussions, a member of the public took council to task not for its procedural difficulties, but because it had not met his high standards. David Mitchell excoriated council and ridiculed the administration for passing a budget in excess of his expectations he felt too high. He believed then cynically ridiculed the work of Controller Pat Roller who has formed a talented committee to reform our tax system and policies. Roller has received nothing but praise from conservatives and moderates, alike, for her budgetary and fiscal policy work, and especially for bringing great talent to bear on our fiscal problems. Of course, Mr. Mitchell offered no solutions, but he chastised everyone for not measuring up to his vague standards. Perhaps he would cut police, or fire fighters, or weights and measures or the Animal Shelter or water pollution control, or he would personally run planning without compensation. Such is the life of a public official, to feel the wrath of frustrated citizens. But, one can sympathize with Mr. Mitchell: government is complex, the city is growing like a teenager, costs increase and it is incredibly hard to keep up with the workings of government. Even those inside government and those of us who follow its machinations closely are, at times befuddled, which is exactly why the work of Controller Roller is so import. She and the administration, to the applause of most on council, have chosen to look at the basics and see where reform might be made to make our little government more efficient. Sadly, Mr. Mitchell ridiculed an effort he should have applauded, but frustration got in the way.