By Seth Richardson
“The devil is in the details” goes the idiom, and sadly nowhere is that more true than in Initiative 300, the Colorado Springs ballot issue advocating reforming the city government to a strong Mayor form. And it’s the details that could derail this proposal, unfortunately.
The move to implement a strong Mayor form is controversial, with opponents claiming that the Mayor will be a puppet for developers and the proponents pointing to the lack of strong leadership in the present form as demonstration of the need to reform city government. And so the debate rages on, and eventually the citizens of Colorado Springs will decide.
I personally favor the strong Mayor form, as does Gazette editorial page Editor Wayne Laugesen, but that’s not the issue I’m addressing in this column. Gazette columnist Barry Noreen has come out against the initiative in his September 24, 2010 column “Strong mayor proposal has pieces missing.”
In his column, Noreen objects to stripping the Mayor of all but ceremonial authority as a member of the Utilities Board, which governs the Colorado Springs Utilities Enterprise. This is a valid concern, but in my view, Noreen has still missed the mark.
The flaws in Initiative 300 go much, much deeper than merely relegating the Mayor to ceremonial status on the Utilities Board.
Initiative 300 virtually removes the Colorado Springs Utilities and health care system from any effective oversight or control by the mayor. Even as enterprises, any city-owned operation must be under the direct control of the elected representatives of the people at all times.
As I said, the devil is in the details, and it’s hard t0 understand this threat if you haven’t actually read the entire ballot issue. Problem is, most people don’t have the time or determination to do so, which is evidently what the proponents were hoping for, because their materials say nothing about making either enterprise immune from mayoral or council control.
Well, I have read the whole thing, and I have discovered a number of provisions that raise grave concerns about the measure. These loopholes, like the ones in the Obama health care bill, were inserted in such a way, and glossed over in the promotional material provided by the proponents, so that voters would overlook them and pass the measure without understanding what it really does. It’s the local equivalent of Nancy Pelosi’s disingenuous “we’ve got to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it” arrogance about the Obama health care bill.
Fortunately, although ponderously long because it amends many provisions of the City Charter, and therefore has to include the unamended text too, Initiative 300 isn’t 2500 pages long. So, I’ve read the whole thing, and below, in italics, are the provisions that are of concern, along with my comments on their potential for harm.
In sections 3-10 and 4-40, the measure strips from both the Council and the Mayor all authority over personnel policies, appointment, suspension or removal of employees of the Colorado Springs Utilities Enterprise or the “City’s health system.” I’ve highlighted the pertinent languages in red.
3-10 (f) The Council shall review and approve by ordinance personnel policies and procedures for all City employees, including civil service employees, but specifically excluding employees of City Utilities and the City’s health system; and all municipal purchasing and contracting rules and regulations, it being determined that, as a matter of policy, City Council shall undertake those tasks through the legislative process.
4-40 (c) Except as otherwise set forth in this Charter, the Mayor shall appoint and suspend or remove any City government employee, which excludes employees of City Utilities and the City’s health system.
(f) Appointments. Subject to confirmation by the concurring vote of a majority of the members of City Council, the Mayor shall appoint individuals to serve at the pleasure of the Mayor in the following positions.
(6) The director or manager of any City department, division, office, agency, or enterprise if the Mayor’s appointment authority is set forth by ordinance, except that the Mayor shall not appoint the chief executive officers of the City’s hospital or Utilties (sic) or the City’s health system enterprises.
5-20. Direction by the Mayor.
All departments, divisions, offices, and agencies shall be under the direction and supervision of the Mayor but may be administered by an administrative officer appointed by and subject to the direction and supervision of the Mayor’s Chief of Staff.
The practical effect of these provisions is that the Council is stripped of its civil-service regulatory authority, presumably leaving all work rules to the discretion of the executives of the enterprises. Furthermore, the Mayor is stripped of his authority to hire and fire anyone associated with either enterprise, leaving the executives of the enterprises free to hire or fire without any supervision.
It’s entirely unclear if the Council has the authority to oversee staffing at the enterprises, and apparently the Mayor can “direct and supervise” both enterprises, but without authority to fire incompetent or disobedient employees, this ambiguity in the chain of command will inevitably lead to battles of will between the executives at the enterprises and the Mayor and Council.
If Colorado Springs is to move to a strong Mayor form of government, then the Mayor must have not just the accountability, but the authority to actually administer and supervise all aspects of city government.
The whole purpose of the initiative is to place full administrative authority in the Mayor, so that he can guide and direct the city in accordance with the will of the people, and for the citizens to hold him fully accountable for his actions in that regard.
To absolve the Mayor of responsibility and accountability for the proper administration and functioning of two large city enterprises, particularly the Utilities enterprise, which is a billion-dollar plus concern, emasculates the very purpose of moving away from the current system, and makes of the City Utilities an independent fiefdom that can thumb its nose at the Mayor’s efforts to lead the city towards prosperity and stability. The Council, acting as the Utilities Board, does not do the hiring and firing, it merely sets policy, leaving the administrative decisions to the CEO of the enterprise.
Ideally, the Utilities Board would be an independent board elected by the voters, but the Mayor must still have administrative control over any city enterprise, and should be free to hire and fire employees or executives as he deems necessary. That’s the burden he bears as a strong executive, and that is the expectation of the public. If he fails in his duty, the system is intended to allow the people to remove him at will and put someone in his place who will do the job the voters demand.
The Utilities cannot be permitted to become independent of the city administration, because the Utilities are owned by the people of Colorado Springs, who have a right to exercise administrative and legislative control over it.
It’s a shame that the proponents could not be honest in their intentions and their information, and that they succumbed to the Progressive practice of treating the citizenry like children, as if we are too stupid to read the ballot language and see the traps that they laid for us.
I’m all for a strong Mayor system, but the proponents need to come back next election with an honest initiative free of these sort of shenanigans if they hope to succeed.
There is another alternative however, and that is to go ahead and pass the initiative, and then put another charter amendment on the next ballot to eliminate the enterprise status of the Utilities and put it back under the administrative oversight of the Mayor. I do not favor this sort of “fix it later” legislation, but, as Wayne argued to me, it might not be a good idea to throw out the baby with the bathwater in this instance, but rather to go ahead with reforming the city government with full knowledge of the defects and firm resolve to correct them at the earliest opportunity.
So, it’s up to the voters to be fully informed and to decide what course they want to take, and I have faith that they will make the right decision.
© 2010 Altnews