OPINION: Midnight madness, council opens can of worms.

Illustration by William L. Brown

OPINION: BY ROBERT LANZA

The Council discussed charter changes, residency incentives, and a citizen’s charter committee at the April 1 council meeting.  The council discussion of these issues was held between 12:00 Midnight and 12:30 AM April 2, avoiding April Fools Day in fact but perhaps not in spirit.

Lukewarm

The Council was overall divided and lukewarm concerning whether the city council should have any formal or informal involvement in the hiring of the deputy city manager.  Councilmembers Seth Grimes and Fred Schultz were opposed, other councilmembes were in various states of lukewarm-ness.

Grimes pointed out that the city council DID formally select the deputy city manager to be the current “acting city manager,” but could theoretically have formally chosen an outsider, so the council has already demonstrated that they have the authority to select the acting city manager,  and therefore no charter changes are needed to address this issue.

Generic incentives

With respect to residency “incentives” (which theoretically would apply to any city staff) the council was generally in favor of exploring what financial or other incentives could be applied to “promote” residency and how effective they would be. No details of the types of incentives were provided, but the generic incentives that were under discussion would not constitute any mandatory requirement for residency.

Worms worth the effort?

Councimembers (except for councilmember Grimes) leaned in favor of establishing a “Citizens Charter Committee” to discuss and propose charter changes to the city council.  No details were provided as to how the committee would be constituted or how it would function.  More or less all of the councilmembers agreed that a Citizens Charter Committee would be a “can of worms,” but some councilmembers were inclined to think that the worms would be worth the effort, others not.

Although councilmember Tim Male explicitly stated that residency requirements for the city manager and other city staff were NOT on the meeting’s agenda, councilmember Jarrett Smith indicated in his comments (directly after councilmember Male’s comments) that he thought that a Citizens Charter Committee would be a useful vehicle for a discussion of residency requirements.

Illustration by William L. Brown

Illustration by William L. Brown

The committee’s agenda

So in the event that a Citizens Charter Committee is formed one could expect that city manager and city departmental staff residency requirements would be a prominent agenda item.  The hiring authority of the city manager and the roles and responsibilities (or lack thereof) of the city council with respect to hiring the deputy city manager and departmental staff would also be expected to be on the agenda of any Citizens Charter Committee.

Note that none of this would happen in the near future.  Councilmembers indicated that they would expect any Citizens Charter Committee to have an extended and deliberative schedule.

Expect (unfortunately) additional discussion of these issues at future Council Meetings.

Midnight madness

Aside from the fact that this important discussion should not, literally, have been conducted in the dead of night, proverbially speaking “it ain’t broke.”

Takoma Park does not need the equivalent of a “constitutional convention” to address issues of how the city manager and deputy city manager are managed or other issues of how Takoma Park’s government works.

Altering the city’s form of government

Our current council-manager form of government works well enough, and in my view the proposed charter changes that have already been discussed at council meetings related to how the city manager and deputy city manager are managed would in fact move Takoma Park’s form of government away from the current council-manager form of  government that has served Takoma Park well to date.

Tell us what’s “broke,” if you can

In other words, “the problem” that the Citizen’s Charter Committee would be tasked with addressing has not been articulated by the city council.  So, unless the city council can first articulate, in writing, exactly what issues are within and outside of the scope of the Citizen’s Charter Committee, i.e., “what is the problem?” the committee should not be established.  ‘

We should not just set out a citizens committee into a free form discussion of prospective charter changes, the proverbial “can of worms” as councilmember Fred Schultz noted in his comments.  For one thing, there are “rules” associated with city charters that are ensconced in Maryland law.  If a citizen’s committee is formed, one of the most important issues will be to first provide the committee members with a detailed understanding of what they cannot do with the city charter because Maryland law says they can’t.

Off the rails?

Otherwise we might end up with a long list of prospective changes that are contrary to state law and therefore cannot be implemented.  The citizen’s charter Committee could otherwise easily go off the rails if not closely controlled by a very detailed scope and agenda.  So does the city council really want to spend all the time and effort that would be needed to manage the worms that would be released from the proverbial can?  And for what purpose, since “the problem” hasn’t even been identified?

2 Comments on "OPINION: Midnight madness, council opens can of worms."

  1. Fred Schultz | April 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm |

    I’m inclined toward the idea that a charter commission, if one were to be created, should first and only be tasked with identifying what’s “broke,” as you say, with our charter. In other words, to identify what is simply not working well (or is out of date) and therefore should be considered for possible change.

    Then the City Council could take a look at the specific problem and possibly charge the commission to look at remedies. This would be far better than setting loose a commission to think of all the neat ideas that could be added or amended into the charter.

    As I said in my comments on April 2, I’d be far more amenable to proposals for charter changes that emerge from the community because of found problems than from ideological ideas that come from council members or others. There are millions of good ideas and wishes out there, but that doesn’t mean we need to adopt them.

    There are better ways to consider changes that won’t preoccupy council members’ and staffs’ time (not to mention getting residents needlessly concerned). A charter commission that could convene when a need arises might be a good, deliberative approach.

    Fred
    Councilmember Ward 6

  2. Doesn’t the city Council have anything better to do than this?

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