Demise Of Another Charter City
Tuesday, July 30th, a commentary appeared in the Wall Street Journal - the best thing I read every day - by a gentleman named Bill Nojay, identified as a member of the New York State Assembly, representing the 133 District in upstate New York. The commentary was titled, "Lessons From a Front-Row Seat for Detroit's Dysfunction" and, if you're a subscriber to the WSJ, you can read it HERE. Assuming some of you are NOT subscribers, I'll give you my take on this very interesting and timely piece.
A VIEW FROM THE INSIDE OF A ROTTING CARCASS
Mr. Nojay, then a contractor, served for eight months as the Chief Operating Officer of the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT). He launches his message with the following paragraph:
"Since Detroit declared bankruptcy on July 18, the city's crippling problems with corruption, unfunded benefits and pension liabilities have gotten the bulk of airtime. But equally at fault for its fiscal demise are the city's management structure and union and civil-service rules that hamstring efforts to make municipal services more efficient. I would know: I had a front-row seat for this dysfunction."
He goes on and on, describing the frustration of being confronted with a new problem each day, finding a solution, but being prohibited from implementing the solution due to the complete dysfunction of the government in that city.
SERVICES HALT WHILE REPAIRS ARE STALLED
Nojay discusses the inability to get critical repairs done because vendors often refused to do the work because they had not been paid for previous efforts. Because of the widespread corruption in the city, the Detroit City Council approved payment of virtually all the bills - a fact that he describes as "obstructionism". He tells us, for example, " While I was at the DDOT, roughly 10% of bus-fare collection boxes were broken. In another city, getting a contract to buy spare parts to repair these boxes would be routine. The City Council publicly expressed outrage that we didn't fix the fare boxes, since the city was losing an estimated $5 million a year in uncollected fares." He explained that the contract to fix those fare boxes sat, untouched, for nine months in the City Council offices!
He expressed frustration at sitting for five hours waiting to discuss a minor traffic matter while the City Council members debated whether to authorize the demolition of individual vacant and vandalized house, one by one. He tells us there are over 40,000 vacant houses in Detroit.
CHARTER BLOCKED PROGRESS
He described the frustration of being stifled when attempting to hire outside lawyers to fight injury claims filed against his department incidents that allegedly occurred on his buses. The claims, whether fraudulent or not, were routinely paid without investigation. He says, "But we were blocked by city charter provisions prohibiting any city department from hiring outside counsel without the approval of the Detroit City Council."
SOLUTION - START OVER
After regaling us with more stories of the dysfunction and administrative gridlock that faced him and other department managers in Detroit he closes with this statement: "The last thing Detroit needs is a bailout. What it needs is to sweep away a city charter that protects only bureaucrats, civil-service rules that straightjacket municipal departments, and obsolete union contracts. A bailout would just keep the dysfunction in place. Time to start over."
A CHARTER WON'T NECESSARILY SOLVE OUR PROBLEMS
I write this today as a reminder that a charter form of municipal government isn't necessarily the solution to all perceived or actual problems a city might have. While a carefully-crafted, locally-specific charter CAN be a tool of good governance, it can also be a conduit for governmental mischief.
NO, WE'RE NOT "BELL", BUT...
We have only to recall the recent calamity in the City of Bell, where an unscrupulous City Manager, Robert Rizzo, took advantage of an unsophisticated, uneducated, easily-swayed city council and an inattentive electorate to run roughshod over the city. Only 450 voters cast ballots in the municipal election that created the City of Bell Charter.
TROUBLED CITIES ARE CHARTER CITIES
But, as you look around our state, you'll see other cities in deep financial difficulties who are seeking protection from bankruptcy courts to solve their problems. Vallejo tried that and, several years out, not much has changed in that city. Stockton and San Bernardino are also on the cusp of "bankruptcy salvation", but few informed observers think that's going to fix their problems. One common thread among those cities, and many others teetering on the brink, is that they are charter cities, where the protections provided to Costa Mesa as a General Law City were no longer available to them.
IGNORING THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE
The lesson to be learned here is that, before we rush headlong into yet another charter fiasco, the residents of this city should carefully consider what's at stake, now and further downstream. The electorate resoundingly rejected Jim Righeimer's Charter less than a year ago and yet he ignored the will of the people and almost immediately brought that concept back.
He forced the creation of a charter committee, which is theoretically going to create a charter without the baggage his had. He promised from the dais that he would have NO involvement with the process of creating a new charter, yet appointed a majority to the committee that echoes his views on a charter to the extent that several have recently expressed concern about the slow pace of the process and suggested that the committee simply take his proposal from a year ago - the one that was thrashed at the polls - and do some subtle tinkering to it. What's the rush?
STILL NO REASON WHY...
The City Council could have chosen to have a Charter Commission - 15 members of the community elected by the voters to put together a proper charter - one that would NOT be subject to City Council approval. To date, no member of the committee has yet defined the problems that the city faces that a charter form of government would fix. That's what makes this process so laughable.
NO GUARANTEES THEY'LL EVEN READ IT!
Even more frustrating is the fact that, regardless what kind of charter this committee eventually cobbles together and submits to the City Council for approval and placement on the ballot for the voters of this city to consider, the council is NOT BOUND by any rule anywhere to actually accept what the committee proposes. They are free to toss out their work product and present to the voters whatever THEY want - including a clone of Jim Righeimer's Charter from a year ago.
RIGHEIMER COULD SHOW GOOD FAITH...
There is a push by some, including some impatient members of the Charter Committee, to move the process along more quickly - I presume to try to get a charter on the June Primary Ballot, when many fewer voters take the time to cast ballots. There is a law pending in Sacramento, however, that would forbid any charter actions to appear before the voters except on the General Election ballots. Righeimer and his pals want to force this new charter onto the primary ballot if at all possible. In my opinion, NO charter effort should appear anywhere except on the General Election ballots, period! Righeimer could show good faith if he came out publicly and said he'd prefer it if a charter effort were to appear on the November ballot next year. That would permit his spokespersons on the committee to throttle back their "hurry-up" effort and do a proper job with a charter.
SHOW UP AND SPEAK UP
So, those of you with even the slightest interest in this process should try to attend the Charter Committee meetings to see for yourselves just how this process is moving along. You'll have a chance to address the committee in Public Comments at the start of each meeting, so you can tell your neighbors who are part of that group just how you feel, and why. There's not much at stake here - only the future of our city, for goodness sake!