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Questions and answers on city dysfunction

In an attack reminiscent of some leveled in the past at former mayor Mary Olson, current mayor David Mayfield and incoming protégé Zach Collett, whose candidacy Mayfield strongly endorsed, pilloried council member Ruth Herbel in not-so-subtle tones Monday night.

“That needs to stop,” he told Herbel in a manner best described as scolding. “That needs to stop right now.”

In truth, a question Herbel raised two weeks ago may not have been quite the right way to raise the question.

However, Mayfield’s attempt to gag her and insist in condescending terms that she clear any concerns she might have with administrator Roger Holter before bringing them to a council meeting is yet another action revealing Mayfield to be concerned less about having robust democratic debate and more about making sure trains run on time — his time or Holter’s.

Herbel’s failure to include the nuance of city code requiring the city attorney to be present for meetings only “when so directed” probably was an error. But it’s easy to see how such an error could happen. In fact, Holter came close to making the same error when he wrote in advertising that attorney position that the successful applicant would have to attend regular council meetings and attend special meetings and work sessions when needed. State law also makes a blanket statement that city attorneys must attend council meetings, but this may apply only to cities of other classes or without charter ordinances creating their own unique governmental structures.

The important question was, never had Marion implemented a system in which the titular city attorney would not be attending meetings but a junior surrogate would. This raises all manner of question, including one related to a unique provision of Marion charter ordinances that requires the city attorney to break any tie votes among council members. The council does have five voting members, making ties unlikely, but one often is gone because of his part-time job, another is a banker who sometimes must disqualify himself because his bank is involved in the dealings, and the newest council member, who will take office next month, is an employee of a major city contractor. Tie votes are quite possible. Will the surrogate associate cast the deciding vote, or will the attorney himself have to appear?

Nothing about this suggests that anyone opposes appointment of the new attorney, just that there are things that need to be ironed out — which is hard to do when council members get material late on a Friday and are expected to have studied it by Monday. There’s not a lot of time for Herbel or anyone else to raise questions if they must be filtered through one of the council’s employees, the city administrator.

The real issue isn’t that Herbel raised the question. It’s how Holter and Mayfield responded to it. Rather than know what city code says — which would seem to be a fundamental requirement for a mayor, administrator, or attorney, whether they carry the books with them or not — they chose the patently illegal path of suspending city code. The code itself says it can be modified only by ordinance, which requires publication and, in some cases, super-majority votes in favor. It also includes a provision, though it could be interpreted as applying only to parliamentary procedure, banning the council from ever suspending rules.

There’s plenty of bad blood among several of the participants involved in this, the latest incarnation of a long-standing debate. But the real problem isn’t personalities. It’s the sense of what a city council meeting is supposed to be.

On one side sit Holter and Mayfield, who seem to want the city council to be mainly a rubber stamp for issues completely pre-digested for members like so many worms chewed up by a mother bird feeding her young.

On the other side are people like Herbel and, before her, Olson, who see freewheeling discussion, dissent, and debate as cornerstones of another big “D” — democracy. Democracy never has been a tidy form of government. Despots who rule by fiat or opt to ignore laws when they aren’t convenient are much more efficient but much less American, particularly when what tends to happen is that all real decisions are left to bureaucrats rather than elected representatives.

Marion’s city council tends to devote vast amounts of its time to trifling matters and spends only trifling seconds rubber-stamping issues of more serious import.

A small example came later in Monday night’s meeting when council members spent a large amount of time discussing whether $100 bonuses for full-time staffers should be $100 of take-home pay or $100 of additional salary.

Ignored in the debate was whether some of the hardest working and least rewarded city employees — it’s part-time, essentially volunteer firefighters — deserve something, too. There also seemed to be lengthy discussion about how to make the bonuses be an even $100 of take-home pay, even though any businessperson knows that nearly all accounting software like Intuit’s QuickBooks has a checkbox that allows this automatically.

What never was mentioned was how making the bonus be a take-home bonus — which looks nice and round as a number — penalizes lower-paid workers while rewarding the city’s highest paid employees, Holter, police chief Clinton Jeffrey, community enrichment director Margo Yates, public works director Tim Makovec, and city clerk Tiffany Jeffrey.

It will cost the city more to pay the taxes on $100 of take-home pay for those employees than it will to pay the taxes on the take-home pay of the city’s lowest-paid full-time employee, who makes just 35% of what the administrator does and less than 53% of what the police chief and community enrichment director make.

Hearing debate along those lines might lead one to think that actual discussion going on about the affairs of the city — questions like whether bonuses really are something the city could or should be giving. That’s true for a lot of taxpayers, like yours truly, whose largest Christmas bonus ever in five decades of public and private employment was a chocolate Santa and smallish candy cane.

We don’t mean to leave lumps of coal in city employees’ stockings, but we do wonder whether some elected and appointed officials have a heart of coal when it comes to being willing and able to take the time to investigate concerns brought by elected officials.

A representative of the people who asks questions is doing a far better job than one who panics at any sign of dissent, resorts to taking illegal actions like suspending city code, then attempts to castigate whoever asked the question in the first place.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Dec. 1, 2021

 

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