The empty barrel makes the biggest noise

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A running refrain in recent City Council meetings seems to be an unwillingness or inability on the part of some members to delegate authority. Several weeks back it was an argument over the autonomy of Parks & Rec, as in whether or not they had the authority to fix park benches or install informative plaques without the permission of council. ("What if they decide to put a statue of Satan in Basin Spring Park? Do we just let them?" was how the question was posed at one point. Answer: No, but not because council has the right to tell them what to do under ordinary circumstances.)

Then there was the request for the Planning commission to somehow come up with a list of encroachments on public property past and future, to prevent the city "from just giving it away" upon request by future encroachers. When Planning asked for more specifics, as well as funding for what would amount to a city-wide survey at the rate of $100,000 per year, they were met with indignation.

At Monday night's council meeting, Mayor Pate vetoed a request by council to have Police Chief Hyatt come before them and justify his operations and the size of his staff, a task usually relegated to the budgeting process at the beginning of the year.

(The implication is that with a population of 2,000+ people, we don't need police and fire departments with "million-dollar budgets." On the other hand, according to CAPC estimations, Eureka has between 870,000 and 1 million visitors per year, which bring with them the proportional number of issues needing dealt with by police and EMS etc. So it isn't one police officer per 200 people; it's one police officer per 83,000 visitors per month, if you want to play numbers games.)

Mayor Pate declined the request on the basis that staffing is an administrative issue, not an issue for council. In other words, they were attempting to usurp his responsibilities.

That seems pretty cut and dried, but following their failure to overturn the veto, council immediately put that issue on the next agenda -- the issue of why it is a mayoral responsibility to staff city departments, rather than their choice.

Although open, undisguised hostility toward the current administration (and the police and fire departments, and Parks, et. al.) seems clear to even the most obtuse observer, the underlying theme in all the above seems to be one of Control. Council wants control of issues outside its reach.

The problem is, there isn't enough time in the world for City Council to keep its hands in the running of the minutiae of city operations, not even if you limit it to those personal agenda items that keep popping up like a drunk uncle at a wedding. The twice-monthly meetings already run 3+ hours in duration as it is.

(Seen in this light, the debacle of the deer hunt comes to make more sense. Although the hunt was approved by a vote of the public, and therefore should clearly have gone forward some time ago, that would mean losing control of the issue, and that just wasn't gonna happen on their watch!)

Someone suggested weeks ago that if we want a full-time City Council, we should make it happen. Some cities have those. Abolish all departments, get rid of those unsavory department heads, make the mayor a position used mostly for ribbon cutting, and run with it.

One major problem with this fantasy is that every department is different, every situation has its own difficulties, and everyone has specialized knowledge. Therefore, we would need a council with expertise in many areas, and right now their main expertise is squabbling and muttering under their breath.

So instead we have different people trained to be in charge of different departments. They are trained. If they screw it up, they are held accountable.

But this assumption that everybody's a jerk, that delegating authority means letting the fox in the henhouse, that the mayor is up to no good, that we need fewer cops because...well, they're cops!...needs to stop. This cynical dull anger permeates every meeting and makes those three-hour meetings a slow boat to hell. And it doesn't accomplish anything besides making everyone's work harder, when it's hard enough already.