GUEST COMMENTARY: Columbia deserves the best in city government

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:00 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The good work of government and community requires many hands as well as patience, time and tolerance. It is natural that diversity of interests and points of view should solve diverse problems. For example, citizens who use wheelchairs advocate curb cutbacks and building access. As we grow older, we come to appreciate the ramps and elevators. Neighborhood watch groups help keep our homes safe. Volunteers pick up trash on roadways and from streambeds. Some help maintain nature trails and bike paths. These tasks and good works are too numerous to mention. Not all of us share the individual commitment to serve, but we benefit collectively as a community.

I have worked with the city council this past year and have become aware of a problem that exists in city government. It is still legal for the city manager to force staff to deceive the people and our elected city council. This happens in front of TV cameras where speech is recorded. Likewise, all documents presented to the council by staff are permanent records preserving deception in its written form.

I support an ordinance to stop this behavior. This ordinance would make it a misdemeanor for staff to “knowingly make false statements or deliver false documents in the council chambers.” A misdemeanor has the same punishment range for someone who persistently honks at a bicyclist. This ordinance might not completely eliminate staff deception, but it will discourage it. The proposed ordinance also states, “All complaints must come from the city council. The vote of two council members shall be required to start an investigation. Results of this investigation shall be discussed in closed session. A majority vote shall be required to initiate prosecution.” This will give control of this process to the city council and stop any frivolous claims. The council shall weigh the intent of the falsehood, whether accidental or purposeful, in their deliberations. The usual guarantees of right to legal counsel and an open and speedy trial in municipal court would be preserved.

This ordinance shall apply only to future acts of deception and staff shall be informed by inner-office memo. This ordinance has the advantage of preserving the city charter mandated power of the city manager to hire and fire staff. It further preserves the functional organization of the city, in that the citizens democratically elect a city council that then directs a professional city manager.

I have been asked if this practice of deception really exists and why this ordinance is necessary. There are documents online that provide evidence of past abuse.

The conditions that make this abuse possible are numerous. The council members are dedicated volunteers, unpaid and often overworked. Many have full time jobs, family obligations and a life outside their council duties. The reading and preparation for council meetings are daunting and time consuming. Councilpersons meet with citizens during office hours, neighborhood association meetings and other civic functions. Most compelling is the unusual structure of our city charter. Historically the charter was designed with a concern that one or more councilpersons would use their influence to direct staff in such a way as to benefit themselves, interfere with the city manager or achieve results that were not openly and democratically decided. Because of this, council members can be removed from office for this behavior. The result is the heightened dependence on information provided by staff in the council chamber. This fact magnifies the importance and effect of deception when it occurs.

I believe we should view staff reports as akin to courtroom testimony. Staff should make every effort to tell the truth. This law as written will do no harm. It preserves what we as citizens want and expect — honesty. It also protects staff who love Columbia, want to be proud of their work and wish to be honest and honorable. They will be able to say to the city manager, “I can’t deceive the council. It’s against the law.” We will all benefit from truth in government.

 Kurt Albert is a Columbia resident.

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