Counseling the council
Some of its members may mean well, but Marion’s city council continued its recent practice Monday of acting first and thinking later.
Changing two city ordinances after it already had approved a beer license that violated them, the council finally closed the book on a shameful chapter in which business owner Johsie Reid and council member Ruth Herbel wrongly were vilified.
It then promptly opened a new chapter, this time needlessly making villains out of unpaid and unappreciated members of the city’s planning commission.
At the heart of both chapters appear to be power-hungry personalities who want to be seen in backroom dealings as speaking with ultimate authority on city affairs even before they consult anyone else.
When such dealings come to light, if anyone dares to suggest that laws and procedures be followed, he or she immediately is labeled a negative force, opposed to progress.
Key council members’ bullying tendencies then are pandered to, and the council — persuaded that its own authority is being challenged — is urged to move forward without ever looking to see where it is going.
Members may believe they are cutting red tape, but what they actually are doing is creating massive snarls that could leave the city on the wrong end of lawsuits.
Reid’s beer license is a good example. She never was told that the proper course would have been to propose ordinance changes that would allow it. Instead, the license was bullied through without those changes.
When problems were noted, the license was upheld not because it was proper but because the city had acted improperly in approving it. Overturning it after improperly granting it would have exposed the city to a lawsuit.
It’s not that Reid would have sued. She’s a community-spirited business person who repeatedly has shown that she’s more than willing to deal with whatever challenges might come her way. If the city had told her about any obstacles, she would have dealt with them. But the city wanted to be portrayed as eliminating all obstacles, even though it had no authority to do so.
The result was the sudden need Monday night to approve several changes in city code without any discussion of what might have prompted their inclusion in the first place — like the idea that drinking establishments might be a bit safer for patrons if they have separate bathrooms for separate genders.
The same situation seems poised to happen with zoning laws in the city’s underused industrial park, where fanciful dreams call for construction of all manner of improvements imagined but unlikely to come to reality.
Bulling ahead and taking issues away from a panel that by law is supposed to consider them is legal only if you believe a tortured timeline presented by city staff. The city’s new legal counsel was careful to point out that his opinion on taking the matter away from the panel was dependent on the accuracy and completeness of what he had been told by city staff.
Rather than investigate to see whether that timeline was accurate, council members bulled ahead without anticipating consequences. If their actions eventually are exposed as improper, the fig leaf used to cover them will be the same: It would be unfair to undo what’s already been done, even if it was done improperly.
It’s rather reminiscent of a famous quote Richard Nixon gave to interviewer David Frost: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” This appears to be a new credo of some on the council and the city staff. It’s joined by a corollary: “Everything is legal until it’s challenged in court.”
The real question council members never asked themselves Monday night is why they are jumping through hoops created by developers of a proposed new Family Dollar / Dollar Tree store.
The developers, who still haven’t closed on land they agreed last fall to purchase, acknowledged in their purchase agreement that a conditional use permit would be needed and that it was their responsibility to obtain it. Now they come to the city stating that they want the store to be operational by summer and need permission now, even though they only this week submitted paperwork seeking the permit.
Bowing to their pressure and not wanting to appear to be answerable to anyone else, city staffers now want to end-run the entire process, eliminating the need for a permit by rezoning various spots within the industrial park. Because planners wanted to think before taking such a broad action, they now want to take the matter away from the planning commission and do it all without publicized hearings, notices to nearby landowners, and other legally required safeguards.
Other than stroke city officials’ egos as being in total control of all elements of the process, why the rush? What, actually, will Family Dollar / Dollar Tree bring to the community?
It may bring a few relatively low-paying jobs of the type local businesses already are having trouble filling. It will create sales tax revenue, but most of the gains will be from shifting sales away from other businesses like Dollar General, Carlsons’ Grocery, and Marion County Ace Hardware. Local contractors may do some of the work, but they already do such work for the developers in other cities around the state.
True, there will be some property tax revenue. Make an overly generous assumption that the new store will be valued at twice what Marion’s existing Dollar General is. That means it will pay less than $10,000 a year in city property taxes. It will be close to a decade before the money Marion has promised to spend to create a driveway for the business is paid off from property tax revenue.
We’re not opposed to the store. We’re opposed to giving it special treatment merely to ensure that certain officials don’t lose face.
Pointing this out will surely get us at the newspaper into trouble. Already, Marion’s mayor wants to pull legal notices (which cost the average taxpayer less than 43 cents a year) out of the newspaper and put them on a city-controlled website, where 35% of city residents will be unable to see them and no one will know when to look for them, much less be assured that someone hasn’t tinkered with them.
Such is life on the banks of Luta Creek, where we no longer need to sandbag during floods but regularly do it during city politics.
— ERIC MEYER