Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007 | Go to the Charter Review Committee’s website and you’ll find a bountiful index of links and documents. If you want to know when and where the full committee or one of its subcommittees is meeting and what they’re debating, you can simply click and read its work plan.
There’s only one problem: It might not be accurate.
The work plan never would’ve told you that on Friday, the subcommittee inspecting the roles of the city’s elected officials was going to vote on a new definition for the city attorney’s relationship with the City Council. It doesn’t even show that subcommittee as having a meeting that day.
It also wouldn’t tell you that the Sept. 20 meeting has been cancelled and rescheduled for Sept. 21. That’s the full committee’s second-to-last meeting, during which it was scheduled to tackle a number of important subjects such as the city’s vital audit structure, city attorney, appointment power and more.
These are not merely bureaucratic hiccups. They are indicative of a process that has been rushed and ill-conceived from the start.
The long-term shape of the city’s own constitution is at stake, yet you would think the committee was planning the homecoming dance by the manner in which it was selected and has gone about doing its business.
Mayor Jerry Sanders convened his Charter Review Committee in April and since then it has been working at a fevered pace to race through an edit of the city charter with the hopes of releasing a set of recommendations to the City Council at the end of this month. After that, the City Council can put these suggestions — or its own — on the 2008 ballot.
But the process has hit a number of snags. These troubles call attention to the need for a lengthy, public process for constitutional reform to augment or replace this hasty enterprise.
For a while, the committee’s three subcommittees met concurrently, making it impossible for one individual from the public to participate in all the meetings. The city also couldn’t televise the meetings.
Two of City Hall’s busiest lobbyists oversee two of the subcommittees. A third is run by Alan Bersin, the man who was given the plum job as chairman of the airport authority by none other than Sanders. It is very clearly the mayor’s committee, not the people’s.
The public isn’t sufficiently represented in the make-up of the group and hasn’t been given the opportunity to be involved in the process.
Boosters cite the need to extend the strong-mayor experiment beyond its five-year sunset period in 2010 as the motivation for the swift movement. They say waiting until 2010 to seek the extension is too risky.
That is no excuse for rushing through a rewrite of the city’s constitution. It is clear that the rushed nature has served no one well and, as a result, the process risks both damaging the credibility of what are indeed to be some very important reforms and spoiling the hard work of a volunteer committee.
Strong mayor can be extended in 2008 temporarily and the city can then be given the proper time to select an elected charter commission — the kind that can truly represent the people and send its recommendations directly to the voters without City Council interference.
The Charter Review Committee is tackling a number of weighty issues. It recommends adding three council seats; clarifying the mayor’s veto; and setting up a financial watchdog structure that will hopefully help avoid the embarrassing and costly financial problems that put the SEC and FBI at City Hall’s doors.
But it has strayed from its original mission, taking on issues that are too far afield from its original calling and that threaten to inject political poison into the debate. For example, the committee has stepped into the long-running power dispute between the City Council and the city attorney, which is sure to overshadow anything else on the ballot.
Its weirdest recommendation has to do with strong mayor itself. The committee would have voters approve a temporary extension that lasts until 2014. And on New Year’s Day 2014, it becomes permanent. Now that’s some clever spin.
We do wholeheartedly endorse one proposal. Unfortunately, that has been relegated to the committee’s “parking lot,” where it places items to be dealt with in the future. This would call for the formation of a new charter committee, either appointed by the council or elected by the people, a few years after the 2008 vote and then every 10 years afterwards. There, we believe, everything but today’s most immediate issues should be dealt with — by a group that would be subject to the state’s open meeting laws.
The long list of issues being considered by the committee is truly worthwhile and necessary. But unless it’s addressed in a way that inspires trust and elicits participation, even the most well-meaning reforms won’t get invited to the dance.