Council Watch

When I first began attending city meetings, one of the things that struck me most was the “tip of the iceberg” quality of the media coverage. Daily Chronicle reporting of the June 11 regular City Council meeting, for example, was concerned with only one agenda item, that of improving the facades of downtown buildings. There was nothing in the article regarding Alderman Donna Gorski’s expression of disappointment with the quality of the materials provided by the Park 88 people in the matter of the Orr Farm annexation, nor mentioned was her suggestion to extend the public hearing on the annexation through the next meeting (which the council did) when it became apparent that too many people were taken by surprise.

Something else you’ve missed, if you only read the newspaper, is that the heat on Alderman “Slick Vic” Wogen has not let up. At least one person, and as many as three, have aired their disgust and distrust of Wogen at every council meeting since he was installed in office last month.

My distrust lies just as much with the city clerk’s office and a few city employees at this point. This is partly a repercussion from the smear mailer, as it is now apparent that the city clerk does not mind violating privacy rules when it will put her friends in office; it also has to do with a scene I witnessed at the May 14 regular council meeting.

Community Development Director Russ Farnum had been working on an ordinance revising the Plan Commission code of ethics. The language was so highly ambiguous that, during the discussion, three council members each came up with a different interpretation of the intent of the rule. Farnum dug in his heels, but in the process of defending his language did in fact end up clearly stating the intent.

What should have happened at that moment: “Great Russ,” said Alderman Anyone. “That’s it, then. Go back and put that in there.”

What did happen: One alderman asks if a word could be added for clarity. City attorney says, “I don’t think one word will make a difference either way.” Another alderman says he believes the language is “adequate.” Ordinance passes unanimously.

“…[S]uch ambiguity is a potential path to litigation, isn’t it?” I asked at the May 29 meeting. “How is this watching out for our tax dollars? I cannot figure out why it is that this ordinance did not get sent back to the drawing board. It certainly should have. ‘Adequate’ is not good enough. And yes, one word can make a difference. What’s more, this whole situation makes me wonder who is really running the show here–and whether the buck really stops with the people we get to vote for.”

I hated to do this. Overall, I feel that the City Council as it has stood over the past two years has been the most honest, most responsive bunch I’ve seen in my 20-plus years of living here, and I have no reason to believe that the new aldermen (besides Wogen) won’t bring more of the same. But the deference of the city council toward the city staff on this issue led to an unacceptable degree of sloppiness. In addition to the Wogen-watching that so obviously is required, this new category/feature, Council Watch, will be an attempt to explore the extent of an unhealthy staff-council dynamic.