City council struggles over how to micro-manage police department in final meeting of year

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The last meeting for the year of the ES City Council was largely about wrapping things up, or at least deferring them to the new year and new council. Of 10 items on the agenda, almost half were removed or deferred.

However, despite the fact they were leaving the table for good as of this meeting, Aldermen Lany Ballance and Karen Lindblad pressed ahead with an issue that's been on the table in one form or another for weeks: an ordinance that would allow council to limit the number of police officers on the city force.

Having corrected some typos in the proposed ordinance prepared after last meeting by City Attorney Tim Weaver, Ballance moved to have the ordinance given a number and put on its first reading.

"This is superfluous," said Alderman Butch Berry. "We have an Attorney General's opinion that says the council is not required to set the number of officers in this way. This is a superfluous ordinance. I think if there's a problem with the number of officers, we need to deal with this during our budget meeting. The Attorney General says what we have is fine."

Ballance countered she nonetheless felt the new ordinance was necessary and suggested the council choose a number, either the nine subordinate officers working for the ESPD, or a higher number, in case they wanted to add officers later.

Berry said if they were going to pass the ordinance, they should do so without assigning a number to see if it would pass. "I'm not convinced we need this ordinance, however," he added, "and I'm not going to vote for it."

Alderman James DeVito fell in on Berry's side. "Passing this is clumsy," he said. "The simple solution is to make our budget an ordinance process, so that we do have an ordinance in place that covers the police budget. It would just be a lot more streamlined to pass our budgets that way."

Ballance was adamant in wanting to pass the ordinance, as was Lindblad.

"With all due respect," DeVito countered, "we are not in the capacity of knowing how many police officers we will need down the road. Choosing a number arbitrarily is not good. When the budget is presented we'll know how many officers we'll need. This is an exercise in futility, cumbersome and inefficient."

Lindblad pointed out in the upcoming budget, the budget line for the police department is increased by $109,278. "I've never known a time when we've decreased the police budget," she said. "We're $66,000 away from having a million dollar budget, so I think we should pass the ordinance. I don't think this issue is obviously not being dealt with by the budgeting process."

At that point, Berry motioned to have the whole issue taken off the table for the next council to address, but Ballance disagreed, saying the reason the current police force was so large was that the chief of police and former mayor were mother-in-law and son-in-law. This remark evoked vigorous calls for "point of order," meaning in this case the remarks were inappropriate. The mayor concurred.

Clark has the numbers

Ballance also had several pointed questions for the city's Finance Director Lonnie Clark. Clark explained that the patrol fleet was aging -- council had denied them a new police car last year -- so maintenance was an issue.

Lindblad, who had been adding items on her calculator, asked about other specific items. Clark explained that a cost of living adjustment was part of the increase.

"With a city of only 2,000 people, I just don't understand why we need this big a budget," Lindblad said.

Clark explained, as had been brought up in the past, that with 800,000-900,000 visitors to town each year, it's impossible to equate just what the police force would need without the visitors. "And keep in mind the budget is based on projected revenues," he added. "The money is there."

In the end, council decided to pass the issue along to the upcoming council, and so it was done, 5-0.

Moratorium ends on 199; DeVito urges the impossible

In other business, council unanimously passed on its third reading Ordinance 2169, which specifies the rules for repair or replacement of non-conforming signage. It now becomes law.

They also passed a motion to have the city attorney draw up an ordinance saying that "city permitted" rather than the narrower "city sponsored" events, such as concerts put on by outside venues, should be allowed to sell their event-related products at those events.

They also renewed the lease on the courthouse parking lots and ended the moratorium on selling business licenses in category 199, which is the catch-all category that caused problems when 10 homeowners in R-1 residential areas of town acquired licenses in that category so they could offer lodgings by the week for tourists, which is in no way allowed by city code otherwise. The licenses were later rendered null and void by council.

With the moratorium ended, people wanting to open other businesses in this category, "whatever doesn't fit in the other categories," will be able to now do so.

At meeting's end, DeVito closed out his current term in office -- he will take his seat with the new council on Jan. 1 -- by saying that while he had served on council a few times, this was the first time he'd served where "half the sitting council is suing me."

He discouraged lawsuits as an appropriate method for dealing with council business matters. "When you sue the City council, you send a chilling message to any citizens out there who might think of running for a seat, but are afraid if they do so there's a chance they will end up in court.

"I could never sue anybody sitting at this table," DeVito said. "It doesn't do justice to the democratic process. Taking a sledgehammer to government sends a chilling message. I'd certainly like to see some of the political hostility diminish. I'm more than willing to compromise. I just feel that lawsuits unfortunately have become an epidemic. I'd like to see a better day for Eureka Springs. Unfortunately, the bare-knuckled politics of this community cast a pall."

DeVito referred to a 2009 lawsuit brought by Pat Matsukis, Karen Lindblad, Rae Hahn, Lany Ballance and Charley Wurmnest. It was brought about because of a special meeting during which competitive bidding was waived on new coin-operated parking meters and included an emergency clause allowing their purchase.

Co-litigant Ballance responded in her closing comments by saying, "It's been interesting. I've learned a lot. I continue to anticipate watching city politics, and if I feel another lawsuit appropriate, I'll bring it."

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