Charter Proposal: Spin Impersonating Legislation

 As background for the readers of this blog, I am an agnostic concerning the proposed new charter.  Chris Mathiesen has put forward what I think are some compelling arguments for a new charter while my wife, Jane Weihe, has made a strong case against the change.

I do have some thoughts, though, on the latest amendment adopted by the Charter Review Commission on Monday night.

The Commission offered the following additional language to their charter’s ethics section.  

 “B.    It is the policy of the City that the activities of City government should be conducted in public to the greatest extent feasible in order to assure public participation and enhance public accountability.”

 This amendment seems to suffer from the same oversell that has afflicted the whole charter change process.

I simply cannot restrain myself on this amendment. Ok, here are my snarky questions.  How did this city manage to operate for so many years without this amendment requiring transparency and what will happen to the ethics of this city if the charter fails and this amendment is therefore not adopted?  Why don’t we add to the charter’s section on ethics that our elected officials shall be required to tell the truth in their professional capacities?  Let’s also require that the elected officials always be courteous to each other.

 How, one might ask, will the admonition on transparency be enforced?  Who will judge the city government on its adherence to this section of the charter?  Who knows?

 What does it say about the commission that they believe that the adoption of this amendment has some sort of significance?

2 thoughts on “Charter Proposal: Spin Impersonating Legislation”

  1. Hey John, gotta say, I think the better question might be, what does this post say about someone who has even managed to find something negative say about a hopeful, positive statement of intent by the people who have worked so hard to craft a charter worthy of our city? Ya know, this should be about a balanced review of 2 alternatives, not an exercise in nitpicking the new proposal, in hopes of finding even the slightest reason to tear the whole thing down. It would be great if you could spend more time on real issues, highlighting the many ways the new charter addresses the truly substantial drawbacks of our existing charter – serious structural flaws that can never be fixed without changing our form of government. Here, I’ll mention a few.

    Nobody is in charge. We don’t have a chief executive, and there’s no way the commission form of government can be “tweaked” to give us one. In effect, we have 5 separate governments directed by 5 elected officials. Residents and businesses have a hard time navigating this uncoordinated system. Council members who don’t get along prevent staff in their departments from working together. The last set of tweaks passed in 2001 included a last-ditch attempt to give the mayor more power. Here’s a good one: “The Mayor shall have authority to require any Department to report to the Council in writing on the status of any function, program, or project involving the City. Departments shall provide aid and assistance to the Mayor in execution of these responsibilities.” Talk about unenforceable. And this is a matter of real substance. Because commissioners are independently elected, there is nothing in the charter that can force them to respond to anything the mayor “requires.” Each commissioner is the sole authority over his or her department, can reveal or withhold anything they want, and there’s nothing the mayor or anyone else can do about it. At this point maybe you’re thinking – well yes there is, the people can vote them out! Really? But…

    Nobody runs for office. Because under our current charter everyone on the council has to be a full-time representative of the people, as well as the ultimate supervisory authority over a city department, all for a token salary, nobody wants the job. Most people who might make great council members are put off by all those departmental responsibilities. Since 1915, only 7 women have served in any city council position. None in accounts, none in public safety, and only one in public works in the 1940s. This year 3 incumbents out of 5 will have no opponents. This will be the 17th out of the last 21 elections with uncontested races. And those who do run?

    Department heads don’t have to have any qualifications. Come election time, political parties scramble to find anyone to run for city council. But to run, you have to pick a department to supervise. Those who might be good candidates for a normal council usually reply, “But I don’t know anything about that department.” The response? “Don’t worry, we’ll teach you. You can learn on the job!” Our charter doesn’t require council candidates – or their appointed deputies – to have any education, experience, or aptitude for managing their departments. Is this how anyone starting from scratch would design a system of government to manage an annual budget of over $42 million? This isn’t to take away anything from the good people who have done their best to make a bad system work. This is about the system, not the people.

    The new charter solves the problems. It will save money and take the politics out of the delivery of city services. The problems with the commission form were recognized soon after 1901, when it was first used. The council-manager form, on which our new charter is based, was invented not 10 years later, specifically to address the problems of lack of leadership, council bickering, a lack of good candidates, and a lack of professionalism. Very few cities adopted the commission form after 1920, and most cities who tried it have abandoned it. The council-manager form has grown until today, when about 3,500 cities and other local governments use it.

    In the new charter, an elected city council will make all major decisions, and an educated, experienced city manager will be the chief executive, overseeing the entire city workforce, working as a single team to get things done. With department responsibilities in the hands of a professional manager, more people will run for office, and all members of the council will participate in making decisions about all issues facing the city. We will have a more diverse, representative, and effective city council. Politics and city services will be separated. Because the city manager reports to the city council as a body and not to any one official, the manager isn’t subject to the influence of any single politician or political party. The city workforce is insulated from politics and works together in the direction set by the entire city council. All residents and businesses are equally well served.


    1. SO, We already have a Gov’t that’s been through the mill, three wars , a depression and Rick Fenton…….and we come out with glowing numbers from the State and the Taxpayers don’t want change!….2012 VOTERS REJECTED CITY MANAGER FORM OF GOV’T BY 1750 VOTES ….AND NOW WE WANT CHANGE????????????


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