Role of City Council Examined
As Veteran Councilors Bow Out
By Edward Shanahan
Recent stories reporting on Ward 4 City Councilor Rita Bleiman’s decision not to seek re-election come on the heels of Ward 1 Councilor William Dwight’s similar decision to pack it in after serving three terms.
Such defections from the council cannot be much of a surprise, given the horrendous time commitment that work on the council entails for the conscientious councilor.
The wonder is that so many good people are willing to expend so much of their time on the public’s business with so little reward It’s all work and no play.
From a distance, it seems as though the council as a whole actually has very little role to play in making decisions, large or small, in shaping city policies.
Increasingly, on more and more issues, the council is largely of a unanimous opinion. Rarely will there be sharply divided opinions and clear majority-minority votes on issues. All councilors more or less agree about everything, it seems.
This particular council is a very talkative one (although slightly less verbal since Maria Tymoczko and Fran Volkmann left the scene), but mostly all the councilors are taking the same positions and explaining them in similar terms.
Debate is rarely as robust as when Phil Sullivan, Judith Fine, Tymoczko, and Pat Goggins, for example, were holding forth or even the glory days when former Ward 6 Councilor Jim Brooks kept his colleagues on their municipal toes with his challenges, questions and ample documents.
I recall with pleasure the determined role that former Ward 2 Councilor Bill Ames, the only Republican on the council, took in raising issues that others had not considered.
The conduct of city business has largely slipped out of the hands of the City Council as a succession of strong mayors - Dave Musante, Mary Ford and Clare Higgins – have come to dominate, aided by the omnipotent finance director, whose judgment on all matters of money drives city government decision-making.
The professionalization of city government, thus, has led to a diminished role for political considerations, the result of the pressure of lowered financial resources for the city in the face of increasing costs.
Rarely do we find the council debating larger issues – the last such discussion was the question of King Street zoning, which sought to slow the influx and impact of large retailers into the city along that corridor.
The council’s role these days seems merely to be supportive of the mayor and department heads, rather than an equal partner with the administration or a check on it.
One example that comes to mind is the unusual ability of Fire Chief Brian Duggan to always be first in line for money, including a new fire truck at a cost of more than $750,000 or some $30,000 for two new ambulances to start a duplicative service within the department even though the city is already served by a professional firm with no out-of-pocket costs. I’ve heard the explanation for why this is so several times, yet I have never understood it.
And maybe the councilors never understood it either, but the expenditures were ratified.
With the balance of power shifting so much in favor of the chief executive and administrative officials, it is not surprising that any city councilor might after six years conclude that the time-consuming committee work and the endless verbal marathons twice a month just aren’t that satisfying.
I admire the councilors for what they do and how hard they work at it. Yet, the system and circumstances seem to be stacked against them. They just don’t have much effect in determining the direction the city and its citizens will move.
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