We can’t ignore ignoring the law
Like a bad episode of “Judge Judy,” without a headstrong judge to rein things in, Marion’s dysfunctional city government was on full view again Monday night.
Disagreement wasn’t the problem. In civic affairs, as in editorials, strong-throated presentation of myriad questions and diverse points of view is what makes our crucible of democracy work.
The problem is the city’s crucible seems broken. Those who dare raise questions are portrayed as ill-informed troublemakers. They, in turn, perceive others as secretive, deceptive, and dictatorial. In the middle are swing voters who appear more concerned with going along than they are with carefully considering all views.
The result Monday night was the city taking the unfortunately not-unprecedented action of voting to suspend the rule of law and ignore rather than change regulations it finds inconvenient.
That might be standard procedure in tin-horn dictatorships, but there’s nothing in our constitution, statutes, or city code that gives anyone the authority to simply ignore what’s legally required.
Details are confusing and easily clouded by side issues, but what really happened Monday were two instances in which a city council, tired of listening, overstepped its authority mainly just to shut people up.
If you’re among those who think government oversteps by requiring masks and vaccinations, you should be equally up in arms — figuratively, not literally, of course — over what happened Monday night.
Part of the problem appears to be a pervasive mantra throughout Marion’s populace of trying to make everyone happy, regardless of cost.
That’s why the city paid its attorney to devise a way to let a land sale go through even though the intended use violates requirements. The solution was to instruct a quasi-independent body, which the council has no authority to instruct, to change the requirement after the fact so the intended use would become legal.
The council then went on to specifically “suspend city code,” which it most definitely cannot do, to ignore a requirement that a newly appointed city attorney attend council meetings rather than sending a rookie just six months out of college to fill in at the same rate of pay.
If the council wants to appoint the attorney in question and he is too busy to meet as required or has a better idea how to best use his time, it should change city code, not vote to ignore it.
Discussion devolved into misleading statements about whether another applicant missed an application deadline and two job interviews — neither of which he did. A legitimate question of conflict of interest was raised, even though the exact same conflict successfully had been dealt with in the past.
Both applicants are well-qualified, talented, and honest. One may be stretched a bit thin but has greater expertise. The other has a local office but didn’t want to perform some of the duties as prescribed and wanted to charge almost twice as much.
Those should have been the discussion points, as should have been a staff-written and previously unseen request for qualifications, which suspiciously encouraged bidders to propose sending surrogates (exactly as one candidate proposed) despite city code.
We think the person selected will do an excellent job, but it does seem as if the deck was stacked against the other, whom we think also would do an excellent job.
All of this set the stage for the most serious gaffe of the evening. Having tired of accusation and counteraccusation, council members apparently weren’t listening when they agreed to give away another lot for free while getting absolutely no guarantees in return.
The city is now obligated to spend as much as $110,000 on improvements and could be liable for $10,000 or more in damages after giving away a lot without making sure that the lot will be used for the purpose that justified its price tag of just $1.
The development company purchasing the lot now can do anything it wants — from building a dollar store to reselling the lot to just letting it sit fallow. The sales contact is completely one-sided, and after all the bickering, council members appeared too tired to notice.
Simply documenting within the contract the rationale for giving the land away would have been sufficient, but “go fever” seemed to hold sway, and the council, acting on questionable advice from staff, refused to insist on this simple but necessary protection.
It then went on to consider all sorts of inducements for supposedly underpaid city employees without ever questioning the basic assumption employees make about being underpaid.
The average annual salary of city workers is $40,381. The average annual income of Marion taxpayers — the people who pay those salaries — is $26,577. Absolutely none of 24 city employees earns that little. Some earn as much as three times that much.
According to job placement services, the starting point for the middle 50% of entry-level positions for various occupations throughout Kansas, including metropolitan areas, is $21,692 for trash collectors, $21,800 for retail salespeople, $27,283 for truck drivers, $29,300 for newspaper and TV reporters, and $37,336 for teachers.
City workers mainly aren’t entry level, but workers in the latter two categories generally must be college graduates, which most city workers aren’t. All except the last category typically feature few if any benefits, especially not a retirement program that far exceeds Social Security.
Add in benefits and time off — which, despite one council member’s assertion, definitely do count in figuring employee pay — and the average compensation for city workers (excluding overtime) is $54,188.
Giving city employees a 9th and 10th holiday each year, an extra $500 or so off their utility bills, and a hefty raise to keep up with inflation may still be necessary to attract workers — provided, of course, it doesn’t steal those workers from equally hard-pressed private employers.
The point is, any informed decision needs to take factors like these into consideration, and the current situation on the council has devolved to the point that no one is listening when concerns are brought up.
That’s why we write editorials — not to pick fault but to make sure people consider all facts and opinions, not just those of a select few whom they don’t disparage as crackpots, despots, or irrelevant ink spots.
— ERIC MEYER