PHOTO: Citizens pack the city council chamber in October 2014 to object to the Takoma Junction development process. Photo by Bill Brown.
GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
This is the second of two columns this week marking Granolapark’s tenth anniversary. The first is here.
What, you may wonder, has Granolapark creator, author, and CEO Gilbert learned in ten tortuous years of Takoma Park city council watching?
Also we’ve learned that for the most part Takoma Park’s city government works well. But people who don’t follow the council’s inchworm-like progress – punctuated with infrequent short bursts of galloping panic – have some very strange ideas about it.
Ask any city council member about the first few weeks after they first took office. They become very sheepish about the reforms they thought were needed when they ran for the office, and how they came to understand just how much they had been talking through their, er … hat.
The less people know about the city government and the fewer encounters they have with it, the screwier their ideas are.
For example, one of the most common misconceptions is that the city is somehow in charge of utility work. It is not. Especially not when the utilities are working on a state-owned road (the ones with route numbers). The State Highway Administration is in charge of those and to the SHA the city of Takoma Park is as influential as a flea on Napoleon’s house-cat.
There ARE two flaws in our system of government, we’ve observed. Both are due to constituent service.
Normally constituent service is good. But it can, and does, stumble across the line into Doofusville.
Working the system
The council and staff are a bunch of patsies. We’ve described them before as “easy dates” for any cute looking cause with a progressive credential and a yearning to pass a friendly ordinance, if you take our meaning. “Feel Good Legislation” is Takoma Park’s middle name.
Every activist in town knows getting constituents to pack the city council chambers equals a favorable vote.
Councilors care more about numbers than they do about logic or common sense. They will cave to a crowd of voters faster than you can say “re-election.”
Because they want those constituent votes, they have little motivation to resist a constituent-led request for new programs or expenses.
This is why they almost never turn down a neighborhood request for a speed bump, and why they will never smooth down those awful, punishing speed bumps on upper Maple Avenue.
It’s also how we got toothless resolutions against pate foie gras, battery-cage eggs and the National Defense Authorization Act, among other things. It’s how we got ordinances banning herbicides, giving the vote to 16 – 17 year olds and abandoning our civil rights. And its how the Takoma Junction development process almost got rolled back. It took a large citizen’s group showing up at hearings to counter the roll-back-the-process group.
Council votes are more easier won with volume than with logic. It comes down to which side is more highly motivated to turn out to meetings and make phone calls. The groups that take the initiative usually get what they want. It’s harder to pull together an opposition group in the face of an already organized initiative.
Activists know this. Professional activists also know they can get an easy resume bullet-point by lobbying the city for a feel-good resolution. Unfortunately the city is full of professional activists who want more resume bullet points. Or they want the city to be their non-profit program’s guinea pig.
We wish the council had a rule that the moment a citizen admits the legislation they are seeking just happens to be in their professional field, or that they don’t actually LIVE in Takoma Park, but the legislation is of great interest to their organization – they open the trap door to the giant octopus tank below.
More realistically, we propose the council form a Feel Good Resolution Committee. It would review all requests for feel-good resolutions, hear the citizens and outside agitators, and submit a “yes” or “no” recommendation to the council. There would be no public comments or discussion. The council would treat the resolutions as they do consent agendas. Consent agendas are no-brainer resolutions that need no discussion. They are bundled together so the council only has to vote once, spending as little time as possible. Doing something similar for feel-good resolutions would save HOURS.
Big motivation to increase spending, little to keep it down
Constituents want programs and they want to keep their favorite programs running – and improving. Say there’s a constituent who wants an empty lot preserved as green space. She leads a neighborhood movement asking the city to buy it and turn it into a park. She does not dwell on what it will cost. She may not even realize what it will cost.
But, there’s the initial cost of the lot, the loss of tax revenue if it is turned from private to public land, the additional staff hours and equipment usage. It might mean a additional hire, which means more pension and benefit costs for decades.
The council members get more out of pleasing constituents (in votes and popularity) than they do by keeping budget costs down. This is especially true in Takoma Park where higher taxes have almost never been an issue with most voters. Good liberals with good jobs are happy to be taxed for services they want.
City staff, especially the city manager who writes the budget, are nominally interested in keeping taxes and the tax rate down because raising them looks bad and they do get complaints from some folks: the retired, the long-time residents, the people with relatively lower incomes and the cranks.
But the city manager also has the staff’s interest at heart, and she wants to look good by providing good service, which means paying well and adding new positions. Which requires more money.
Our city managers do a great job on the budget. All three of them in the last ten years have squeezed the most out of the revenues available.
But, tax rates and tax payments creep up over the years because adding programs and people and keeping up with costs does that. Also, since taxes are based on property assessments, they go up if the rate is not lowered.
The parable of the frogs who remain in a slowly heating pot of water comes to mind.
There is no effective check or balance in place. Perhaps we need a Frugality Task Force or a Parental Allowance Committee to chide staff, council and residents who propose new costs throughout the year to resist temptation and stay within their means.
It certainly would be helpful to have an objective outside agency calculate the costs of any new program. Activist-residents and the council always low-ball estimated costs and the staff tends to go along. Their best interest is not to contradict the council or resident activists.
But, wait. An outside agency. That means yet another consultant which means an additional budget item.
Well, as the council members always say, ” it would soon pay for itself.”
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