Maneuvers behind scenes threaten oversight commission.
by Renee Wilkins - 07/30/2016
Welcome to sunny Rio Stalingrad, where city leaders work tirelessly to muzzle anyone who questions city government actions. Consider the events of the past year and half; 18 months ago the City Manager attempted to circumvent the Utilities Commission by taking a Utilities item directly to the Governing Body. 12 months ago the Mayor replaced nearly half of the Utilities Commission by appointing three new Commissioners. 9 months ago the Governing Body almost passed a new ordinance that would have completely neutered the Commission, however, they listened to public outcry during the second reading and left the Commission’s advisory role intact.
Behind the iron curtain being constructed on the fourth floor at City Hall, the onslaught against the Utilities Commission has escalated the past six months. Using intimidation and threats of legal action, city leaders have put pressure on Commissioners who want the City to stop pilfering $775,000 from water rate-payers through a hidden tax called a “franchise fee”. While the fee appears to be legal, the Utilities Commission has dared to question what the fee actually does – it makes city water and wastewater more expensive than it needs to be, because it moves money from the city’s Utilities Fund to the city’s General Fund.
During the February 2016 Utilities Commission meeting, Commissioner Bruce Redd suggested they pass a resolution to the Governing Body to eliminate the Franchise Fees. Chairman VanHorn asked for an action item at the March meeting to do either the budget recommendation or to do the resolution. The motion carried by a vote of 6 FOR and 0 AGAINST.
It did not appear on the March agenda. Why?
In April, the Commission Chairman was informed that staff would attend the Procedure Review Committee meeting to “provide guidance” on how the Commission should bring recommendations, comments and other communications to the Governing Body in compliance with the new ordinance.
In May, staff attended the Procedure Review Committee meeting to provide that “guidance”. In their opinion, the only proper way to bring a matter from the Utilities Commission to the Governing Body is to now bring the matter to the Mayor to consider whether he wants it on a Governing Body meeting agenda.
They believe the intent of the new ordinance is to clarify the role of the Utilities Commission as a “reactive body rather than a proactive body”. The hitch is that no such language exists in the final ordinance changes approved by the Governing Body 9 months ago. It is only the interpretation of the Mayor and senior staff.
In June, Chairman VanHorn followed the dubious new protocol, sending a letter to the Mayor just a few days prior to his meeting with the Mayor and staff to discuss the franchise fee.
While we ponder why and how city staff and the Mayor are now placing themselves in control of the Commission, the intimidation of the Commission continues with the Mayor and city staff suggesting an open meetings violation in the wake of the chaos these same city leaders have created.
The Mayor and his staff have craftily confused the Commission on what the Commission can and cannot do. While the ordinance still says the Commission can review and recommend items to the Governing Body, the Mayor’s Office has taken a play out of Stalin’s playbook by using bureaucratic maneuvers and roadblocks to stop the Commission from making a recommendation on eliminating the franchise fee.
Will the majority of the Governing Body look the other way, just as they have time and again with the City Manager? Now that the Commission has requested a legal opinion on the matter, it’s very ill-timed that the City Attorney abruptly resigned under curious circumstances.