- That ‘executive session’ as the norm for Council meetings would be stopped, reserving such sessions for when the narrow conditions set for them by the Open Meetings Law were met.
- That Council should conduct itself with professionalism and decorum, focusing statements on public actions and the public record, rather than personalities and personal attacks.
- That financial disclosure forms would be filed by Councilors and management staff disclosing any real or perceived interests in organizations or private firms that have, or may be seeking, support from or business with the City.
- That Council operates as a body of the whole, meaning that public business should not be conducted by subgroups of Council (along with staff) unless there is a specifically designated and publicly announced committee to do so.
- That the Mayor and Councilors recognize their status as role models in the community and do not seek to exempt themselves from the law.
While Council did make progress in each area, there is still room for improvement. Executive sessions have been curtailed, but controversy around the Bergmann Plan and other issues show the need for more transparency in government. There were still some raucus Council meetings, with the demeanor of of individual Councilors still questionable, and personal attacks were still too frequent, even if confined to non-televised worksessions. The new Mayor is far less tolerant of Councilors being roughed up in public so that has brought some much needed protection and professionalism to the table. An enhanced Code of Ethics, which includes provisions for full financial disclosures, passed a first reading and will be back on Council's agenda in early 2009, so we are hopeful that the Code will be implemented. But, one councilor was front-page news with his chronic failure to comply with City codes in his role as landlord while a community agency saw its properties shut down for similar violations. The key moving forward will be equity and fairness in both policy-making and enforcement.
With the former Mayor, City Manager, and City Attorney now absent from the scene, most of the year was spent in searches, for new City staff and for coherence in the Council. So, a lot of the new Council’s time was dedicated to ‘cleaning house’, even if much of it was involuntary. Then, of course, there was the lakefront. We’ve made our opinion on that matter quite clear, including our recent post that garnered comments from both the Mayor and community-based participants in the decision making process.
A few additional details on some of these points:
First, we would note that, with the exception of the meetings to discuss and interview the applicants for the City Manager’s position, Council did not engage in many executive sessions. From the time the new City Manager came on board (July 1st) through the end of 2008, City Council convened eight (8) executive sessions out of nineteen (19) meetings. Several of those sessions were for reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates for the City Attorney position, others were to discuss the Town of Geneva’s lawsuit against the City regarding sewer rates. Not only have there been fewer executive sessions, Council has been better about indicating the purpose of the session, again, as called for in Open Meetings Law. These are positive developments to be sure!
The enhanced code of ethics for Council and all City employees, if implemented and complied with, should go a long way towards addressing several issues. A financial disclosure form will be on Council’s table at the January meeting when the code of ethics is slated to become law and the City Manager also created a rubric of specific behavioral guidelines to give Council, staff, and the public a better understanding of the expectations of the conduct of public business.
What will 2009 bring? Well, we have a few suggestions:
What will 2009 bring? Well, we have a few suggestions:
- As our upcoming post on trust will discuss, the Mayor and Council have a responsibility to engage the public in a meaningful way, and that includes interacting with the public. The two keys here are being responsive and being respectful. In order to achieve those two objectives, Council has to create and maintain an environment that fosters respectful dialogue. We believe this is an area where improvement can occur in 2009 if Councilors are prepared to not only let the public speak their mind, but to be responsive, in dialogue, to what the public is saying. Responsiveness can take many forms, and it is as important in between meetings as it is during the open sessions themselves.
- The City Charter indicates that the Mayor shall act as the head of Council and chair Council meetings. On at least three occasions, the Mayor has turned that responsibility over to the City Manager, who freely participates in Council meetings, as if he were an elected representative of the people, which he is not. This is not to say that the City Manager's contributions are ill-conceived, in fact, quite the opposite. But we believe Mayor Einstein is perfectly capable of running meetings, no matter the format, and he ought to be alert to the dangerous precedent of the turning the legislative body over to the executive. It not only sets up an inversion of power that leaves the public confused, but it lets Councilors off the hook for carrying their own weight in the legislative agenda-setting that they were elected to do. This will mean that Mayor Einstein should be more assertive in his leadership of discussions and in moving the agenda along in a productive way. On that note, while the new agenda format is a great tool in bringing focus to various parts of the meeting and clarifying, for all involved, the purpose of particular items, additional attention is needed under the unfinished business section and Council reports to ensure that Councilors are not simply using ‘TV time’ to give an appearance of Council activity, where it is either otherwise absent or not appropriately placed.
- There were several early announcements from the Mayor about new committees and initiatives. We are concerned about the Green committee. As we stated before, it appears the Ethics committee is about to get up and running, but the status of the Green committee is not as clear. Current economic conditions, combined with the ongoing necessity of attentiveness to environmental issues, makes this an issue that should get going sooner rather than later. The Mayor has the ability to bring together representatives from a variety of key organizations and charge them with developing innovative solutions that will both improve overall environmental practices within the City and also save money in the long term on operational costs. We are also hoping that the Youth Council, an effort to engage teenagers in the civic process, will be taken seriously by Councilors.
- This year’s budget development was a great process and yielded the first true zero-tax-increase budget in years (neither an increase in the tax rate nor across the board increases in property assessments). The ongoing monitoring of the budget’s objectiveswill be essential. Most important, in our view, is tracking the property owner’s return on investment. The first priority area of the budget was ‘value for the tax dollar.’ As we discussed in a previous post this is a function of both tax dollars paid into the system and city services rendered to the residents. Keeping an eye on this, and balancing effectiveness with efficiency will be key in 2009.