Opinion: City Council discussion

The Fort Wayne City Council

There were several interesting points made and discussed at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting concerning the Renaissance Square purchase.  Several are worth noting and considering further.

One of the biggest was the discussion over whether or not a public hearing was warranted.  Another involved some on the Council feeling “rushed” to make a decision over whether or not to purchase the building.  The point was also made that most of the ordinances that come before the Council originate with the Administration, not the Council.

The budget in particular comes to the Council as well as all other spending ordinances.  The fiduciary and oversight responsibility for the City rests with the Council.  Often times, the Council is blamed for spending money on projects which the public deem irresponsible or “crammed down their throats”.  Whether some Council members feel this is proper or not is beside the point.

In this particular instance, this purchase has been looming on the horizon since June when the ordinance was first introduced to the Council.  Bigger picture is that the issue, not only that of more space for the police, but purchase of the building, has been discussed and bandied about since at least 2004.  Everyone in our City, who’s the slightest bit involved with our local government knows a problem exists.  We also know that this is one of those City-County issues that hasn’t either gone away or been resolved.  It should also be noted here that while the City has tried to determine the direction it wants to take, the County has been left hanging with it’s own space concerns.

The City held a press conference July 13, 2009 in which they presented their plans and detailed financial information about the proposal.  Council members receive advance notice of press conferences and are able to attend.  I was at that press conference and don’t remember seeing a Council member present.  On the very next day, the County held a meeting to roll out their idea that joint ownership of the building was the best way to go.  Again, Council members were able to attend the meeting and only Councilwoman Liz Brown and Councilman Tom Smith were in attendance.  I am positive that if any Councilperson had asked the Administration for a meeting and more information, it would have happened.

Tuesday night, Councilwoman Liz Brown made the comment that the Council needs to know that the County will be able to fill the space vacated in the City-County Building.  This was echoed by others including Councilman John Shoaff who made the point that Council had not heard directly from the County.  This was true on the face of it, however, if the County needed to be heard, why hadn’t they been invited to the table?  At this point in the game, to say that things can’t go forward without hearing from the County feels like a stall tactic.

A lot of discussion was held about the public’s weighing in on the topic.  Councilwoman Karen Goldner stated she’d had several e-mails about the purchase since the introduction of the ordinance in June.  Councilman Pape pointed out that several open microphone times had been offered to the public since June, but this issue had not been discussed.  He also, right after the vote on the motion, stated he felt the right result was to have a public hearing, even though he voted against that motion.

The point that needs to be made here, is that the City Council, even though they don’t introduce most of the ordinances that come before them, are in charge of how their meetings are conducted.  True, there are parameters that govern how the meetings flow and what is in order and what is not, but they have the ability to invite the public or anyone one else they deem pertinent to the table if they wish.

A few weeks ago, another topic, the Calhoun Street widening project was before the Council.  (This project also had been in the public purview for a couple of years.)  Council President Tom Smith had asked for the public to be afforded the opportunity to speak before the discussion in the local media.  When it came time for that to happen, it was denied, by Councilman Marty Bender.  Some Citizens had gathered for that very purpose and had read in the newspapers that it would happen only to be turned away because as Councilman Bender put it, “There’s not a public hearing on the agenda.”  In the pure legal sense, he was right.  However, in the spirit of the moment, perhaps it should have been called a “public input opportunity.”

But, the bigger picture here is that these issues do not suddenly drop out of the sky.  If Council knows that a controversial issue looms on the future, why not plan for public input?  Officially place it on the agenda – they have the ability to do that, right?  Doing this would also allow the public to plan to be present – and give a clear signal they are welcomed at the Council table.  To say in a meeting that the public hasn’t been able to weigh in on a topic and are being denied that right is inaccurate.

I’m not advocating for time to be set aside in every Council meeting for public input on every issue.  To do so would bog the system down to the point that nothing would ever be accomplished.  But, there does need to be balance and if one Council member asks, the others need to support it.  Council knows what issues are going to be huge and require some sort of public input opportunity.  But, when at the last minute a request is made at the table for public input and it feels to some on the Council like a stall tactic, they will react accordingly.  The public then walks away feeling unwelcomed or undervalued.  No one wins in that instance whether or not they advocated for public input.

It is too easy for some on the Council to slip into victimstance and decry the big bad Administration for bullying them into decisions rather than take charge of their destinies, look forward to what’s on the horizon and become participants rather than roadblocks.

It is also easy for we citizens to sit back and play the victims as well.  If as you read this today you still have questions about the financial details of this project or what exactly is going on, it’s no one’s fault but your own.  The information is out there and has been available.  It’s easy to say that our local government is unapproachable.  It’s easy to say they won’t listen and your opinion doesn’t matter.  But remember, that’s why we elect our officials.  True, my choices haven’t always won.  True, when I’ve held candidates accountable and voted against them, sometimes they still win.  But my voice is still heard through my vote, and the instant I forget that and give up is the instant I also give up my, well, excuse my language, but I give up my bitching rights as well.

Everyone has to work together and accomplish their respective duties.  The Administration must provide information in a timely fashion and allow for discussion and consideration.  The Council needs to make sure information is provided and they have all the facts before making a decision.  The citizens must let their elected officials know what they are thinking and feeling about the issues.  The Administration and Council need to work together, communicate and plan for such things as public input opportunities or a presentation by the County.  It is true, that this Council is not always predictable.  But knowing this, it seems that someone either inside the Council or on the Administration side needs to step up to the plate and take a leadership role to shepherd these hot-button issues through the process rather than allow – and sometimes encourage – them to become public spectacles.

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  1. Marty had announced the day before the vote on Calhoun Street that he thought the cost too much and the value too little. He changed in a short period of time and then denied opponents an opportunity to speak. Something happened to effect his vote and to make him adamant that no one could voice opposition to the Mayor’s plan. I have my guesses.

  2. Stephen,

    That is a thoughtful and insightful response to the actions of City Council. I agree that they seem to forget that in their oversight role, they have the ability (maybe even responsibility?) to invite others to the table. At the very least, it looks like they are doing their due diligence before they make a decision. The public didn’t vote for them to rubber stamp the Administration. If the Mayor needs to be checked, check him. If he needs to be supported, support him. Always though, doing whats in the best interest of the residents of Fort Wayne.

    • Thank you, Stan. I do appreciate it. I would agree that they seem to forget their oversight role and would say it is their responsiblity. It really feels sometimes as if no one is working together. A lot of it is politics, but it sure doesn’t serve the citizenry, as Tim Pape would put it, very well.


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