Council, the mayor, and loops

By Gary Abernathy - [email protected]

When Mayor Drew Hastings last Monday submitted the names of Design Review Board members for Hillsboro City Council’s approval, council approved the members by a narrow 4-3 vote, but only after Lee Koogler, the council president, made a rare public encouragement for council to do so.

Earlier in the meeting, council member Tracy Aranyos voiced her opposition to the board, saying she felt that it was creating headaches for businesses making improvements, and arguing that the regulations about city standards are online for all to see. She framed her position as being an advocate for smaller, more efficient government.

It is true that most of the regulations are available online. But as everyone knows, if 10 people read rules or instructions about how to remodel their buildings, there will be 10 different interpretations of those rules. The Design Review Board has effectively served as an arbiter to create at least some semblance of consistency in making sure the uptown’s historic integrity is protected. The mayor said later that he credits the board for the improved appearance of the uptown district, an improvement that few dispute.

Based on Tracy’s comments, Lee placed the future of the board into two council committees – one headed by Claudia Klein, the other by Ann Morris, both of whom, along with Tracy, voted “no” on approving the board members. But it’s difficult to ignore the fact that there seems to be more going on than a sudden dislike of the Design Review Board, or a small- government initiative.

Putting aside the issues in the court system with which the mayor is currently dealing, some on council have clearly begun to chafe at what they see as Drew’s heavy-handed involvement in all things, and their belief that too much is being done without their input.

Drew himself is a member of the Design Review Board, as he meets the criterion of being a property owner in the uptown district. But it is a legitimate argument to suggest that perhaps he should not be so directly involved.

Just as council members who are business owners must be careful to draw a thick, black line between their duties on council and their personal business interests, so too should Drew be sensitive to being both the mayor as well as a member of boards (unless required by law) that deal with city business. But objecting to that circumstance by eliminating a board is not the answer, as the baby said as it was being thrown out with the bath water.

Lately, at each council meeting, some council members have made a point of insisting multiple times to the mayor that they want to be “in the loop” on a number of issues. But the fact is, there are things that are the job of the mayor’s office (administrative branch), and things that are the job of council (legislative branch), and the two should not be confused.

Last Monday, Tracy also asked the mayor to provide updates on grants being pursued by the new city grant writer. Council might want to have input on grants, she said. But every month, Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director, already explains projects that are being pursued and a breakdown of how they are funded, including when grant money is part of the mix. The pursuit of grants is the job of the mayor’s office, although anyone – council members or other citizens – can make suggestions at any time.

Tracy is a conscientious and caring member of council. In fact, that’s true of every member of council. But council’s role or authority gets blurred from time to time. For example, people who are upset with someone in the mayor’s office will occasionally bring their grievance to council, as though city council members oversee the mayor’s office or serve as a board of appeals. Council does not have those powers, as Lee points out on most such occasions.

We currently have city council members who are extremely active, which is better than being inactive. It shows a high level of interest on behalf of the city they represent. But there are boundaries to be respected, and sometimes they aren’t. For instance, many committee meetings have in essence turned into unannounced full council meetings because so many members of council – including those outside the particular committee – are always present and participating, constituting a quorum. But that’s a topic for another day.

Throughout the years, every council that has ever existed has worried at one time or another about criticism that it is a “rubber stamp” for the mayor, and occasionally makes a point of exerting its independence. But mayors are elected by the citizens to establish a vision, pursue an agenda, and ultimately accomplish as many goals as possible. Councils are right to give as much deference as possible to enacting a mayor’s priorities.

It’s not difficult to imagine the behind-the-scenes rumbling constantly at play by people unhappy with the mayor and who urge council to take a more active role in reining him in. But that’s not council’s job.

Our governmental “checks and balances” are important, but they are not something that anyone must initiate with more zeal. Checks and balances are built in, and are automatically exercised in the course of each branch simply carrying out its assigned duties on a routine basis. For actions that are truly egregious, we have a judicial branch.

Council might complain about being left out of the mayor’s loop, but council members have had their share of activities without the mayor, including executive sessions into which the mayor was not invited, apparently with little concern about leaving him out of their loop. That is their prerogative.

Each month at council meetings, the mayor, the safety and service director and the city auditor make reports, answer questions and, when necessary, ask for approval of various items. Communication and cooperation are important for progress and achievement.

But city council has its “loop,” the mayor’s office has its own “loop,” and it’s not always possible, or even appropriate, for one side to always be inside the other’s.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

By Gary Abernathy

[email protected]