Lanka’s Retrospective

The Fort Wayne City Council     

Ben Lanka at the Journal Gazette has two articles in today’s paper looking back and ahead at the Fort Wayne City Council and Mayor Tom Henry.  I am preparing and should have it posted by the end of the week, my five favorite moments from this year’s City Council sessions as well as a look ahead.  Excerpts from Ben’s articles follow.

Rebuilt City Council learning to get along

[…] The turnover at times led to chaos at the table, with members quarrelling over minute or procedural issues. The length of the discussions and squabbles was noticed by the more tenured members.

“I’ve never sat through so many long council meetings in my life,” said Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st.

[…] Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, was even more critical of the newer members, saying 2008 was a challenging year for the council, warranting only a “C” grade.

“I think there was a lot of posturing at the table as people tried to establish their way of doing business,” he said. “A lot of meetings went way too long.”

The council year started with controversy over the Republican majority meeting in private caucus to choose the council president and committee chairs – a privilege the majority party has held for years. That was followed by lengthy discussions over how to select a council attorney.

In April, the discourse was so heated, one member suggested adopting a conduct policy to be nice to one another.

Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd, took the blame for the drawn-out debates, saying he was too patient with the fellow members, especially at the beginning of the year.

“Rarely did I hit the gavel,” he said.

But Didier said he was trying to create an open discussion among members, and he thinks fellow council members have settled into their roles over the last few months.

Despite the acrimony, the council had its share of action this year. It took a much stronger stance against the mayor’s budget than previous councils, axing $2.4 million in spending, including pay raises for city employees, from Mayor Tom Henry’s 2009 proposal.

It approved a fairly substantial change to the city’s tax abatement policy, meaning all projects will no longer receive the maximum benefit, as was the case previously.

[…] Councilwoman Karen Goldner, D-2nd, said she was especially proud of being able to work with constituents and neighborhood officials to help solve a problem.

“I enjoyed it more than I thought I would,” she said. “I really loved it.”

[…] Goldner said the disagreements at the council table are often productive and leave the council with better legislation in the end.

“The purpose of government is not for everybody to agree with each other,” she said.

Brown’s first year has been one of the most contentious, as her personality and blunt questioning seemed to invite confrontation with city officials and other council members.

“I don’t think anybody will ever tame her,” Didier said of Brown. “She’s definitely a fireball. She’s not going to mince words.”

In fact, Brown has even sent city employees away from the table in tears with sometimes over-the-top aggressiveness. She also had a run-in with Hines when Brown asked that the city’s budget hearings be extended to give her more time to prepare suggestions for spending cuts.

For all the confrontation, Brown said she enjoyed her first year and learned a lot.

“I certainly hope that people at least think I’m honest,” she said. “I try not to have a hidden agenda. I don’t hide my emotions very well, or my opinions.”

[…] Harper said he was surprised that the council mostly reacts to administrative proposals instead of its members driving initiatives. He has developed a reputation for delving into the minutiae of council proceedings in an effort to make the meetings run better, although those efforts have achieved little success.

He has been a vocal advocate for more public involvement, saying the council has set up obstacles that actually discourage people from participating in local government. For example, the public comment period during meeting is conducted after the council has approved its bills for the day.

“The public is offering up an opinion after the fact,” he said.

Harper introduced a bill to make more information available electronically to the public. While it has stalled in committee, he said he hopes to act on it next year after the city’s information technology department is staffed.

[…] The council will have numerous challenges in 2009; most pressing will be the city’s finances. A state cap on tax revenues will cut millions of dollars in taxes from the city’s budget. Brown said she plans to begin meeting with department heads immediately about ways to trim costs.

While most members were reluctant to say it was necessary, the council might meet to discuss raising income taxes to help offset some of the lost property tax revenue.

The council also will hear a proposal to raise sewer rates next year to help finance the $240 million project to keep raw sewage out of the city’s rivers.

Harper said he plans to introduce a bill requiring the administration to provide council members with monthly financial statements for the city, which he said are crucial in this economic climate. He has made numerous requests for such information previously, but those were ignored, he said.

[…] Hines said now that members have gotten used to the schedule, they should be able to focus more on how to serve residents.

“If we set egos aside, we’ll see better results coming out of the council,” he said.

And his article concerning Mayor Tom Henry:

Henry: A year under his belt
Mayor relishes public side of job, knows challenges lie ahead

Even after serving 20 years on the Fort Wayne City Council, Mayor Tom Henry was surprised by the work demands of leading the city The first year on the job – and his commitment to accessibility – made it clear that being mayor would be life-changing.

“The days are long, and the weekends are gone,” he said of his life as mayor.

Henry said his staff tells him the strains on his time are often self-inflicted, as the mayor keeps a schedule booked with public appearances.

[…] Henry said letting the general public know he is accessible is critical.

“To me, that’s an important part of the mayor’s job,” he said.

[…] City Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, said working with Henry has been a pleasure because his style is more easygoing than Richard’s. He said there were few spats between the council and mayor this year. Henry’s only veto concerned creating a fire merit board, and it was overturned.

“I think we’ll see stronger leadership and more programs and policy changes as time moves on,” Smith said. That may lead to more tussles, but they would be professional, he said.

[…] Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, said he hoped to see Henry become more assertive next year.

“The mayor needs to have some kind of vision of where he wants the city to go,” he said.

Scattered pitfalls

Henry’s first year has not been entirely smooth. In fact, Mother Nature provided interesting bookends to his first year – starting with a flood and ending with the recent ice storm.

Henry was faced early on with resignations from the Northeast Public Safety Academy, which is still without a director. New state tax legislation hamstrung the city financially, making next year’s budget especially tight.

One of the most vocal disputes occurred when Hines lambasted the city’s minority hiring process. Hines, a Democrat, said he still hasn’t seen much progress.

“In 2009, I look forward to some positive movement. If not, I’ll address it again,” he said.

Henry said one of the most troubling issues was Harrison Square’s derailment by the economic collapse, which has given credence to the naysayers who have ridiculed the project from the start.

The $130 million public-private development downtown was started under Richard’s administration, but Henry has had to work with developers of the condominiums and the hotel after they missed initial construction start dates.

The credit crunch has made it unclear when either project will begin construction.

Henry said he is concerned with the progress on Harrison Square but said the developers are still excited about the project, and he holds out hope. Being overly combative with the developers, such as by filing a lawsuit over the delays, would likely serve no one’s interest, he said.

“We’re going to try to be as flexible as we can possibly be,” he said.

The project has personal interest for Henry, who had agreed to buy a condominium, but the contract was rescinded by the developer after the condominiums were redesigned. He noted that’s not a bad thing, as it would likely have been difficult to sell his house in this market.

Harrison Square includes a Courtyard by Marriott with parking garage, The Harrison condominium/retail building, and a city-owned baseball stadium.

[…] On the state level, he [Mayor Henry]  said he will continue traveling to Indianapolis to oppose putting recent tax caps in the state constitution before their effects are fully realized. The caps will limit the amount of property taxes the city can collect next year, but the biggest hit comes in 2010.

[…] And, of course, Henry enjoys the job, comparing it to a drug in that he understands how some mayors can become addicted to the position.

“It is one heck of a gig,” he said. “You’re in a position to really do some wonderful things in a community.”

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