The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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City Council, March 9

Mayor’s relation with Council souring
Will the Mayor or Council set policy?
Marc Knapp

The agenda for yesterday’s City Council meeting was light, so light that one wondered whether it was worthwhile attending. But it was. The inflection points of change can often only be determined with the passage of time. Yesterday’s meeting may have been one of those points in the history of the Mayor Riley, and in particular his control of Council.

There was nothing on the agenda that signaled the confrontation that the Mayor would have with his Council. Indeed, the congratulations offered to the Mayor by Council member Reigel and endorsed by others, on his award from President Obama suggested an amicable meeting to follow. But that soon changed when Council member Gregorie complained on the tardiness of the City in providing minutes of past meetings. One way or other, nearly all the Council members signaled support for Council member Gregorie and those that didn’t – Council members Wilson – didn’t speak in defense of the Mayor. Council member Waring was absent.

Minutes for last 3 meetings still not available
Council member Gregorie noted that the minutes of the last three City Council meetings were not yet available. This was bad. It limited his effectiveness as a Council member serving his constituents. He needed to refer to past minutes, in particular those of the immediate previous meeting, to guide follow-up questions. He and other Council members noted that other municipalities were able to provide timely minutes.

Clerk of Council Turner Maybank told Council that the City differed from other municipalities in that minutes were “verbatim”. Everything that was said was recorded in the minutes. The minutes of other municipalities were summaries. To transcribe all discussion took a lot of time and it was because of this, there were delays. The Mayor supported the Clerk and added that the City did not have the resources to put on extra staff to provide more timely minutes. The Mayor also spoke of the large expense of installing Voice Recognition so that comments could be immediately transcribed to text.

Members united in demand for timeliness
This did not go down too well with Council and there followed a long and often heated debate as to measures that could be undertaken. Council wanted “verbatim” minutes and quickly. “Fix it” exclaimed Council member Gregorie! We also thought, as probably did Council members, that the Mayor was dissembling and exaggerating both the expense and needed time.

My associate Warwick Jones pointed out that a Voice Recognition program could be bought for $150 and installed in a portable computer. Similar to “simultaneous translation” used in the UN for example, a member of staff could attend Council meetings and repeat the comments of the Mayor and Council members as spoken. These would immediately be transcribed into text in the computer. The text would probably need to be edited and this could be done by listening to the tape recording of the meeting. The cost would be minimal.

Maybe it is not so simple, but for Council members to wait as long as 2 months is unreasonable. Council member Lewis noted that he had been calling for more timely minutes for years. We suspect Council members are not in a mood to wait any more, and rightly so!

Heated exchanges lead to question: Who sets Policy?
Mayor Riley was clearly unhappy at the rebuke he had received from Council members. His frown grew deeper after the exchanges towards the close of the meeting. It started when Council member Gallant complained about the information given to him on wages and salaries. He was concerned that some judges were getting pay increases while low-paid city workers were placed on furlough. He sought specific information on salaries which staff failed to provide, at least in the detail he had requested. CFO Bedard and the Mayor noted that the information requested could be given in executive session, but by law, could not be supplied as a public document.

We can’t comment on the merits of the complaint of Council member Gallant or the defense offered by the Mayor and CFO Bedard. But we note it precipitated a fierce response from some Council members, in particular Council member Mallard and may influence the tone of future Council meetings.

There were altercations between Council member Mallard, the Mayor and CFO Bedard, The Council member accused CFO Bedard of hiding behind the Freedom of Information Act in denying Council members the information they sought. He later accused CFO Bedard of being “glib” and “condescending” in his answers. The Mayor rose quickly and refuted the Council member’s allegations.

Council member Mallard stated as had other Council members in previous Council meetings that the Mayor administered the City but the Council set policy. This may not have been the case over the last 35 years. But we now have a new City Council, the Council member declared, with the strong implication there will be a change.

The discussion/debate/altercation closed with a reminder from Council member Gregorie that a meeting had been promised with staff, the Mayor and Council to go over the City Code in relation to Council meetings, policy and administration.

City looking at restricting cell phone use
The City is looking into restricting the use of cell phones and in particular texting, while driving. Some Council member noted that it is difficult to enforce such restriction. The Mayor and some Council members noted that restrictions had been applied in some cities such as Los Angeles and New York.

The Post and Courier had a full story on the issue this morning so we’ll say no more.

Unimpressive behavior
And finally, yesterday's meeting started with a very disconcerting act by students from Stall High School and Garrett Academy. Council meetings start with an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Most of the students had to be told to stand for both. The ones seated behind me either did not know or did not care to recite the pledge or put their hands over their heart. One has to wonder what is really being taught in our schools. These students were there to observe the meeting for a class. They were very unprepared or just did not care. Unfortunately, I believe it was the latter. Biut whatever it is, it is also a sad reflection on the schools and their teachers.

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