As you may have read in these pages last week, our intrepid Council members recently took a few minutes from their busy schedules to bash the media. It all sounded very familiar; the media are negative/nitpicking/unfair/selectively abusive/focused only on bad news/just trying to sell newspapers.
When I was on Council, I would have agreed with all of it, but now things seem a little different. Democracy is messy, embarrassing and untidy, especially for elected officials. That's why politicians do their best to substitute ersatz democracy for the real thing.
That's why the city's public communications office is an aggressively pro-active ministry of propaganda.
That's why your mailbox is full of cheery little newsletters from various city departments -- utilities, parks and recreation, SCIP -- telling you about all the wonderful things that the city does to improve your life.
And that's why city officials might return your calls, but not mine.
Actually, that last was a little unfair. I just got off the phone with Council member and former colleague Bill Guman, who took my call right away and answered questions with his usual candor. I asked him what was up with the secret meetings being conducted by the City Council.
Council holds no less than 20 closed "personnel sessions" annually, one every quarter with each of their five appointees (the city manager, the auditor, the city attorney, the utilities director, and the city clerk).
The meetings themselves seem reasonable enough -- after all, Council needs to monitor the operations of city government. Are goals being met? Are appointees complying with Council policy? Are there any problems that need to be dealt with?
But why do these meetings have to be held in private, without a record, and with media and citizens excluded? Bill offered a few reasons -- "maybe because we'd like to ask the city clerk how she gets along with the manager" -- but no convincing rationale. The actual reason is simple: Council closes the meetings because they can.
Open meetings of any kind are the aboveboard way to conduct business, but they are also a source of unmediated information, there to be pounced upon by reporters or pesky citizen activists. To the extent that elected officials can transact business behind closed doors, they'll do so, even those who, like Bill, are most dedicated to open government.
Meanwhile, the saga of the Udick Building continues. Readers may recall that the city manager decreed some time ago that it should be demolished to provide convenient parking next to the soon-to-be-renovated old City Hall. By strange coincidence, those parking spaces were to be reserved for ... you guessed it, the city manager and his Council bosses.
But, as of a few days ago, the Historic Preservation Advisory Board, after considering the matter in a public hearing, unanimously agreed to "implore" the city to consider alternative uses. It's encouraging that there will at least be a public debate on the building, which, according to a local architect, could easily be converted into eight or 10 business or residential lofts.
Eventually, Council will have to decide the matter; one can only hope that they prefer historic preservation to personalized parking spaces.
Bill Guman has had his share of public differences with the city manager, so I asked him point-blank whether the manager's in any danger of losing his job. Guman may be candid, but he's not a lunatic; he genially declined to comment. I didn't press him, and the conversation drifted off into remembrances of things past, when we served together on the board -- and on ancillary matters, like Council's recent decision to support Internet taxation.
Guman and Lionel Rivera were the only two Council members to oppose such a policy. As Guman pointed out in exasperation, "I'll bet 80 percent of the citizens would vote against Internet taxation; who do we represent anyway?"
It was interesting to talk to Guman, just as it has been interesting to talk to other Council members over the past weeks and months. It made me once again aware of the dilemma that elected bodies face when they may need to make painful, difficult and divisive decisions.
If, for example, there's a scant majority, or even a substantial minority, who might favor removing the city manager, do you act, knowing that such a course will bring anger, acrimony and uncertainty, or do you try to work things out?
It's a tough call; some officials get forced out (like former manager Dick Zickefoose), some leave gracefully and voluntarily (like ex-Mayor Bob Isaac), and some have to be unceremoniously booted out the door (read: me).
I think I know which category Jim Mullen belongs in.
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