March 5, 2010
How a City Government Can Be Rearranged
In Grants Pass, Oregon we are nearing our specially arranged emergency election of five city councilors. As spelled out in my recent article, we are having this election as a result of the wholesale recall of five councilors that took place last fall. It was an ugly event in which the recall was very clearly and obviously engineered by entrenched city officials and power. It tragically took out five elected councilors bent on much needed reformation, whose primary sin was failing to play along with the established way of doing things. Unfortunately voter apathy played a major role in the loss of these five.
Following the recall Mayor Murphy, a dedicated insider, ignoring any kind of protocol, law, charter, ethic, or what have you, just made five phone calls and formed himself an instant quorum. (In our town there are eight councilors—it takes five to make things happen.) Voila! Five phone calls - a quorum!
A legal challenge was mounted against the mayor's action but ran headlong into an insider judge who ruled that expedience dictated leaping over protocol. Gavel comes down in favor of Mayor Murphy's five. In the judge's opinion, the city had been derailed by the unfortunate recall and seriously needed to get back to work. This is business as usual in Grants Pass.
The mayor then made a promise framed by a salesman's grin, that his temporary council would do nothing important, decisive or impacting while they were in office.
My purpose in writing here is to update the reader on what has happened since the appointment of the Murphy five, but before I do, let's take a minute to observe how the city government is structured:
The elected council of eight, it is clearly stated in the city charter, is the brain, the artist and the boss of the city. They decide what should be done, how money should be spent, who gets hired and fired, how growth should be planned, where roads should go, salaries, etc.
Now, since the councilors are ordinary elected volunteers from the community, they will need advice and implementation from hired professionals who have established proficiency in their areas. These people are referred to as staff. City manager, assistant city manager, city lawyer, planning and development, etc. Even though these staffers have certified proficiency in their fields and command high salaries, the charter plainly states that they are there to do the bidding of the council.
Things can go bad, though, in a free society—things that are difficult to foresee. What has gone wrong in Grants Pass, is that very slowly the boss has become the servant and the servant has become the boss. The people in the staffers positions are paid big money and benefits. They punch the clock at city hall every day. On the other hand, the councilors are volunteers. They are working people whose love for community and guts to get elected brings them to public service. . Their term of election is four years. So after four years they are gone and replaced by someone new. The staffers are hardwired bureaucrats. They stay and stay and stay.
Well any social scientist can see what is going to happen there. The staffers are actually more rock-solid, more connected than their boss, the neophyte, inexperienced, short termed city council. In a model such as this, the city starts belonging to the hired - they have their hands on it far more than anyone else. They develop wants and needs for the city. They have no public constituency – nobody voted for them. The staffers develop camaraderie in the hallway and at lunches. They come to enjoy the power, privilege, salary and longevity that their staff status brings them. Before long it becomes perfectly clear that all that stands in the way of their having a nearly dictatorial rule on the city—is the city council. So if elections can be controlled, if the council can be arranged to be a "yes" panel, then Grants Pass at that point is run by the city manager and his/her staff. This is greatly facilitated by the slanted reporting and opinions of the town's only newspaper the Daily Courier. The hired people are now in control - not the elected council. On a ship, this is called mutiny.
So let's take a look at what Mayor Murphy and his pirates have accomplished in just four short months.
1) A special election was scheduled for about five months in the future to elect five new councilors, but the voters were soon to find out that the customary official voter's pamphlet would not be in the mail this year. It had been cancelled by the city in order to save money.
We did the math. What they were saving by not publishing the $5,000 voter's pamphlet was one ten-thousandth of the city budget. Quite a savings, eh?
I find this incredulous. In our town of 30,000 that has been devastated, damaged and divided by this insidious recall - with trust in government at an all time low - the councilors and staff are so blindly arrogant as to go one step further in angering the populace – they remove the voter's pamphlet. Can this be America?
2) A $94 million dollar park plan was passed into existence by the temporary city council. The five councilors (quorum) who voted the park into existence were the appointed Murphy five. Even the senior councilors - the ones who survived the recall because they were insiders – voted against it.
So the Murphy's appointees have handed us a park. This park has been a long time dream of the insiders. Having the public vote on it might just dirty up the progress. I assure you, the recalled council would never have let this happen. And guess who's going to pay for it – in spite of the governmental promise that the money is going to materialize out of thin air? You know the answer.
3) The verbatim minutes of official meetings are being done away with in favor of edited minutes (edited by whom?). These edited minutes are to become the minutes of record. Apparently verbatim minutes can be accessed by attaining and watching a DVD but those who are experienced at accessing information prefer the verbatim minutes - find them easily accessible, pertinent, truthful and unsullied. Might I say unedited?
4) Performance audits were cancelled by the city. A performance audit is like an efficiency over-view. An agency is hired to observe your business and possibly show you ways to have it more together. According to many who are experienced in these matters, performance audits always more than pay for themselves. The recalled council had approved and budgeted performance audits for the City of Grants Pass. Guess what? They have disappeared from the budget. No meeting, no announcement, no council, nothing.
5) There is vitally important policy of allowing certified press representatives to attend administrative meetings. Without explanation or warning, NewsWithViews.com, who has had a press pass for 8 years, is barred from attending meetings. New permits for press passes have been issued by the city. Ironically, one is issued to a local radio station that does not even report news. NewsWithViews, who is known to be critical, is out.
Now take a deep breath and look at the five actions listed above. Can this be a coincidence?. Every one has to do with either accountability or blocking the public from involvement or knowledge in local government. Are we back in Europe in the 1700's? Getting away from this style of governance is why we fought and formed a liberty-based Constitution calling for a government BY, OF, AND FOR THE PEOPLE – a.k.a. The United States of America. Amazing how things can get turned around - and right in our own back yard.
So here we are with but a very short time to the election. Soon this will all be swept under the rug as we take up with a new set of councilors. One of the county commissioners has written a public letter congratulating the temporary councilors for a fine job. The Daily Courier will refer to it as a healed situation, though it looks more like scar tissue over a festering wound. But the ultimate hovering message in Grants Pass is this: If you are elected to council and don't toe the line expected of you by city management – you will be humiliated and removed. Political bullying has made its stand – voter apathy plays along.
Imagine the quality of candidates this attracts. Imagine the appeal this has to voters. And now, with less than two weeks to go, the voter turnout has shown to be tragically low. (In Oregon, we vote by mail. The ballot is mailed to the citizen's homes and we have a month to turn it back in by the election deadline.) People have lost interest in the cheap debacle of city hall as reported by the Courier. They are tired of voting just to have the outcome reversed. They haven't realized yet that their apathy will ultimately dig into their wallets.
Yesterdays paper was full of assurance that a voter's pamphlet is not really necessary. All you need to know about the candidates is available through the Courier or through your Chamber of Commerce. (Please ignore that the Courier and the Chamber of Commerce were both instrumental in the success of the recall.)
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The Courier's chief editorialist is still - four months after the finalization of the recall - hacking away at the recalled councilors. In yesterday's editorial he referred to the recalled councilors' time in elected office as "last years antics at city hall." Unfortunately people read it and believe it.
© 2010 Bernie Conrad - All Rights Reserved
Bernie Conrad was born in San Diego, CA, 1944. Attended College at University of California Santa Barbara and Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles. Served in US Army Reserves 1965 -1971. Has worked primarily at building renovation and property improvement. Has worked extensively and tutored privately in art and woodcarving.
My purpose in writing is not political or religious. I feel the time has come to enlist in the war between right and wrong. I do not claim a background of specialization other than a love of my family, my fellow man and the American pursuit of happiness. There has been an unquestionable downturn in the character and quality of life within my country - within my lifetime. I see numerous causes for this phenomenon. These causes I identify as the enemy. To speak out against them is to fight for my country. I have gotten too old for the sword so I shall take up the pen. It is a privilege to live in a country where I may do this. It is a shame to see our own citizens unaware of this blessing.