6 keys to understanding what the heck happened at city hall on Tuesday

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It was certainly one of the more interesting common council meetings last Tuesday to say the least. A whole lot of people showed up to voice their support for the Creative Connections Arts program and for the ad-hoc volunteer efforts led by Mayor Ann Thane to paint murals over various public structures blighted by graffiti or disrepair. Emotions were running high and things were a little tense. The proposed resolution to require council permission before any mural was painted on city property didn’t come up in committee discussion and wasn’t on the agenda to vote on. So it seems that the arts won the day. But I am sure this is hardly the end of the story. What happened Tuesday was the culmination of a bunch of different long running issues that are going on at city hall, ones that will continue to play out for at least another year. Here’s my take on what’s going on, and hopefully this may help you understand the bigger picture that puts last Tuesday in perspective.

1. The protestors weren’t misinformed and they were justified in feeling threatened

Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler said the protestors were there under “false impressions.” While technically, Diane never said specifically that she wanted to close down the arts center or stop all murals, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion based on what she posted on Facebook – details of which I confirmed with her in person the same day she posted it.

In her post, Diane complained about the amount of money spent to repaint the flag mural at Kirk Douglas Park. She asked, “Where does it stop??”

The fact that there was a resolution in the works that would have allowed the council to stop mural paintings and maintenance is not in question. Mayor Ann Thane revealed the email exchange between the city clerk and corporation counsel about it on her blog last week.

Diane further questioned the viability of the arts center by asserting “the fact that the arts center is being covered by the taxpayers and is not self sustaining.” When I asked her if she had seen the actual inflows and outflows of the arts center, she said she had not.

Diane said in her post, “We cannot afford to maintain our own city properties, now we are adding to that list with murals and art centers.”

Call it an inference if you like, but I don’t think you can blame anyone for feeling like the murals and arts center were in danger.

2. The council is now questioning the spending of money they’ve already approved during the budget process

Any money spent on the arts center comes out of the recreation department budget. That budget was approved by the common council earlier this year. All receipts are audited regularly by a member of the common council, that’s how Diane knew about the expense to repaint the mural. Everything is very well accounted for, but yet we continue to hear calls for “accountability” and further spending decreases. Why is this?

One possible explanation is to look at how this year’s budget process unfolded. Earlier this year, the common council passed a budget with a number of cuts to the mayor’s proposed budget. Clearly, the council’s goal was to keep taxes flat, and they achieved that. However they did so by asking for an across the board 1% reduction in all department’s spending.

I think it’s very possible that the arbitrary budget reductions may have given us a budget that kept taxes flat, but may not be realistic.

Here’s a case in point. At last Tuesday’s committee meeting, Rob Spagnola said his department’s budget for cutting down vegetation on city owned or abandoned properties will soon be out of money. Why? Because the council asked him to increase the number of workers doing this work from 2 to 5. Now the council wants to find an additional $8,000 to fund the vegetation work through the mid November. Where will they find the money? Who knows?

I predict as the year progresses, more of these situations will come up. And that’s why I think the council is looking for ways curb spending even further than what they were able to achieve during the budget process. I think they are trying to make sure their poorly planned and possibly untenable budget cuts work. Watch this year to see how many times we have to dip into contingency funds or the fund balance to meet expenses.

Another case in point is that at the same meeting, Diane also argued against making a $4600 payment to the Waterfront Foundation to pay for the concerts held there this past summer. The council had previously approved $8000 for Waterfront Foundation concerts for the year. She brought up a problem with a lawsuit that happened ten years ago as justification.

Thankfully, the council approved paying the bill. But not before agreeing to bring in the Waterfront Foundation for some questioning. That leads to our next issue.

3. The council’s use of prosecution style questioning has become intimidating

The city charter gives the council the right to “conduct investigations of any department, board, bureau, officer or other agency.” However the way the council has exercised this right over the past nine months has followed a consistent pattern: make accusations (often based on anonymous sources) then call in department heads to defend against those accusations. We saw this happen repeatedly this year with Recreation Dept. Director Rob Spagnola over the proposed cancellation of the artificial turf installation at Shuttleworth Park, with Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis in regards to eliminating his administrative assistant from the budget, and most recently with Employee Relations Director Bob Reidy. In each case, the department head found himself defending against hostile questioning.

Some of the issues brought up by the council are legitimate. For instance, I think it would be very useful for planning purposes for the revenues and expenses of the recreation department to be broken down on a per facility basis. However, given the “shoot first, ask questions later” style of interrogation being practiced by the council, is it any wonder that many people became alarmed when Diane said she wanted to discuss the arts center, especially given she had already made her opinion known on the issue?

4. The council continues to try to grab executive powers away from the mayor

Another factor in this situation is the council’s continuing effort to assert control over matters that have traditionally been the responsibility of the mayor’s office. The effort started out in the beginning of the year as the council negotiated a contract with golf pro Joe Merendo, and then the four Republican members voted to allow someone other than the mayor to sign the contract. The council retreated from this position just before Montgomery County Supreme Court ruled the resolution violated the charter.

Back in July, Alderman Richard Leggerio suggested a resolution that would require council approval for all spending within the recreation department, even if it was already budgeted for. The resolution did not materialize as even Alderman Ron Barone had to admit that it would be “kinda hard” to tell a department they couldn’t spend within their approved budget.

The most recent resolution that would have required that “no city employee shall use, remove, paint, deface any City-owned property without the written knowledge and consent of the Common Council” was along the same lines. Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis’ opinion on the resolution was that it was “an attempt to direct city employees in their day-to-day actions. The direction of city employees is an executive power belonging to the mayor.”

5. There may be a rift developing within the Republicans

The four Republican council members have stuck together fairly well since the beginning of the year, but I believe we’re starting to see some stress fractures. It may have begun earlier in the year when Diane Hatzenbuhler said that Ed Russo had a conflict of interest in the issue of restructuring the golf commission because his daughter served on the commission. When Diane said he should recuse himself from the vote, Ed fired back that she was out of line. Ed has also, on at least one occasion, cut short Diane’s questioning of Rob Spagnola.

Both Ed and Ron Barone have been staunch advocates of discussing proposed resolutions in committee meetings first before bringing them to a vote. Ed put some teeth to his convictions back in August when Diane’s cell phone ban resolution came up on the agenda. Ed quickly made a motion to table the resolution before any discussion.

When I asked Ed and Ron about Diane’s proposed mural resolution the week before the meeting, both seemed agitated and were dismissive of it. Ron grumbled that he had more important things to worry about than murals.

At the meeting on Tuesday, as Diane was arguing against paying the Waterfront Foundation, both Ed and Ron interrupted her several times saying “pay it!”

I think it’s very possible that the other Republican council members are beginning to become concerned that the increasingly negative public reactions to Diane’s actions are going to start to reflect on them.

Then again, I can almost see a “good cop, bad cop” type of dynamic emerging, and maybe that’s by design. After all it’s only after Diane started talking about a ten-year old lawsuit as grounds to refuse to pay what was budgeted for the Waterfront Foundation, that Ron’s suggestion to bring the foundation in for questioning and “slap them around a little bit” seemed downright reasonable.

I think it’s also possible that this seemingly endless focus on minutiae may serve the purpose of distraction. Multiple FOIL requests by the local paper have been mentioned at two meeting so far, so we know that something must be brewing.

6. Most likely nothing will change until the 2015 election

Mayor Thane read a speech at the beginning of the meeting chiding the council for concentrating on minor issues while ignoring larger issues. She listed several goals that she sees as priorities (including developing a 5 year capital plan, bringing in outside experts to speak at committee meetings, reviewing the progress of AIDA, etc) and called on the council to work more cooperatively with her. This is all well and good. However as long as the Republican council members listen to the residents who complain the loudest and want nothing more than for the council to oppose every single thing the mayor does, nothing will change. If the council actually cooperates with the mayor on anything, they’ll be accused of “kowtowing” in the same manner as previous councils who have dared compromise with the mayor have been treated.

But I think the number of council misfires is starting to add up and the public is starting to take note. I think council members may be sensing the political winds are changing. They may have no choice but to adjust their sails in order to avoid getting shipwrecked before next year’s election season begins.

Photo © iStock/alvarez

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.