Updated: April 24, 2014 at 11:21 am
Another City Council meeting, another day pining to further empower the political class with little regard for those it serves.
Voters overwhelmingly chose in 2010 to stop having a nine-member volunteer council unilaterally run city government. They chose to create an elected, executive branch that would manage day-to-day operations. The city's executive would rise or fall by the electorate's choosing, not council fiat. The legislative branch, rather than manage bureaucracy, would make laws and policies in the community's interests.
Voters chose this because the council's full control of government had become disastrous. The council-appointed executive removed garbage cans from parks, allowed grass to die, medians to grow wild and streetlights to go dark. She instructed a six-figured public relations employee to smear our community in the national and international press with stories about darkened streets, missing trash cans and dying grass. Accountability resided in nine, rather than one.
After voters took charge and enacted change, council members quickly rebelled and looked to regain the power and control they once had. A five-member freshman majority, seated in 2013, has elevated the power grab to extremes. Some members are motivated by a sole desire to quash the mayor.
The latest power play, pitched at Tuesday's council meeting, involves a push by council President Keith King — enthusiastically endorsed by The Gazette — to amend the charter so the council can have its own full-time staff. The council would also have its own lawyer to fight the city attorney.
It's a plan to grow local government. It's a move to make city government, not the people, the exclusive focus of the council. Instead of one professional bureaucracy, we'd have two. Instead of one city attorney representing one government, we'd have two feuding attorneys representing two bureaucracies. We'd have orchestrated, no-holds-barred, taxpayer-funded conflict. Residents would become bystanders and subjects, rather than customers of one local government created and funded to serve their needs.
We do not need two branches of government trying to overpower one another. We need one minimal branch of government that manages bureaucracy and another minimal branch that legislates in a general direction. Each should make reasonable efforts to keep the other in check. If the council would stop coveting control and start legislating, it could bring this community up to speed.
While feuding attorneys should be seen as an expensive recipe for disaster — with the council and the mayor frequently suing each other — one proposal for change warrants consideration. Councilman Joel Miller says the city attorney, hired and fired by the mayor, naturally has loyalty to the boss. As such, the attorney may favor the mayor in disputes between the executive and legislative branches.
"The only way around it is to have an elected city attorney," Miller said.
An elected attorney, like an elected mayor, answers directly to the people who pay the wage. State government's attorney general represents the governor, the ethics board, the treasurer, the secretary of state and other big players. But none hires and fires him. Success resides in showing the electorate his allegiance to justice.
Ideally, a city attorney defends a community and not merely the desires of the council or the mayor. Lots of successful cities elect the city attorney, including St. Louis, Milwaukee, Columbus, Ohio, and Reno, Nev., just to name a few. It may not be right for the Springs, but it should be studied.
We need a few minor adjustments to the charter, but we must not restore executive duty to the council. Let's proceed with the discussion, putting community interests first. Meanwhile, let's dispose of this ugly quest for power and control. This is not a game of Monopoly.