Sunday, June 1, 2008
Voting Procedure at Board of Aldermen Meetings Flawed
A number of people have asked why the Board of Aldermen signed of on a $50,000 in-fill study when the work could just as easily been completed in house. It is a good question. For the record, I voted against the study. Some would say that due to that vote my comments are jaded. I saw it as $50.000 that could be better spent elsewhere in the city. The final tally on the vote was 9 to 1. Did the other members of the Board realize that they were, in many respects, re-inventing the wheel? Were they aware that many do not believe the money spent on the study was well spent? It is another good question, one that can only be answered by those individual Board members. But it does point to a flaw in the way the Board conducts official city business. The Board voted approval of the study by use of a budget resolution. It was passed with less than ten minutes of public discussion at the meeting. The little debate that was covered was actually created by my request to carry the item over until the next meeting so the public would be aware of just what was being voted on. It would be fair to say that nearly 90% of the city’s business is conducted through the adoption of resolutions. It has not always been this way. At one time nearly 90% of the city’s business as conducted by approving bills, which, once approved, were officially adopted as ordinances. State law required three public readings of each ordinance before it was adopted. The law was later changed to require only two readings of each bill. Finally, the law was changed to require only the reading of the heading of the bill. The current practice allows contracts, and other official city business to be conducted by passing of a simple resolution. The current practice, it is argued, is simply a ratification of the city’s budget ordinance that is approved by October 31st of each year. Proponents of the current method claim that the resolution is all that is needed affirm the earlier decision made by the Board at the time the budget ordinance was passed. So, you can see that over time, the change has been dramatic. What was once read in public at separate meetings is now not read at all. This method of legislation is deeply flawed because it does not allow for public feedback on important issues before the Board. From reading the comments to this page it is easy to see that the $50,000 expenditure was not a popular decision with the public. The vote was rammed through despite the fact there was no urgency in making the expenditure. I visited with one of the regular contributors to this page, former owner of the Raytown Post, Lee Gray, about this very issue last week. He pointed out that the two-week window between a first and second reading is very important because it gives the local press time to disseminate timely information back to the public. Who, in turn, can contact their Aldermen before the Board casts its votes. That’s how representative governments are supposed to work. A true story comes to mind of just such an issue from a few years back. Here is what happened. A salesman from the Kansas City Star approached the Board of Aldermen at a regular meeting and presented a package by which the Star would print more stories about Raytown City business if the city would support, with paid advertising, a special newspaper section to carry the news. I spoke very strongly against the suggestion. I told the Board that suggested practice is called “blackjack advertising”. The term probably does not need explanation, but it basically means – you buy advertising and I will print nice fluffy stories about you. I probably came across a little too strongly in my opposition because the most of the Board took turns denouncing my position and saying how they planned to support the plan. At that time, Lee Gray owned the Raytown Post. He had watched the debate on television and wrote a stinging editorial about the inappropriate handling of this particular bit of business by the Board of Aldermen. Apparently, his readers must have agreed. The Mayor or any of the Board members who had so strongly endorsed it two weeks earlier never brought up the issue again. As Mr. Gray pointed out during our conversation, this “check and balance” only works if the local press takes their job seriously and reports all of the details behind the story. I could not agree more. It is advice that both the Board of Aldermen and the local press should take to heart. The Board needs to slow down the way it handles its business. There is no prize for running the public’s business through the mill at breakneck speed. The local press should insist that all sides of discussion be aired publicly, not just for 5 minutes before a vote, but in the local print media as well. It is a practice that should not be done on a “pick and choose” type of governing. For instance, the Board did not carry over the $50,000 for an infill study to receive public input. Yet, when it came to moving a recycling center (which actually earns the city money) the Mayor and Board insisted a public hearing be held to gain public feedback on whether or not the new location was acceptable. Who knows, if exposure to the story had been aired, the city could have bought more streetlights, repaired our failed streets, or build some new sidewalks with the $50,000 that will now be spent on yet another study to be archived at Raytown City Hall.