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Oh, the Drama
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
I tell people who scratch their heads that going to council every Tuesday is the best entertainment in Fort Wayne. It is Wagner, Hamlet, Luther before the Diet of Worms, a telanovella, Sunday’s sermon, and shades of the Inquisition rolled into one glorious show. But most importantly it is the people’s work, in Technicolor, live, unscripted and unpredictable with everyone in the audience doubling as actor.
So it was for the first “Cuts Night,” October 17, and the house was packed. Two million in cuts were proposed. Animal Care and Control leadership faced tens of thousands in cuts, and some councilmen wanted to cut $100k from Fort Wayne United, a social program in the Police Department. Additionally, a group of four councilmen, Arp, Ensley, Crawford, and Jehl, proposed cuts to various lines of the proposed city budget. 75 advocates showed to support FW United and 50 souls were there on behalf of dogs and cats. That sort of showing of public involvement always puts pressure on councilmen and always, always results in dramatic moments, as it did the 17th.
As we have previously noted, the budget is the quantification of the goals of our elected administration. Council, elected as a check and balance to the administration, convenes knowing they cannot add, nor rearrange dollars, only cut from the proposed budget. In late September the budget is sent down to council, hearings begin in October featuring department heads explaining their budgets. Once those hearings conclude council members propose specific cuts to any budget line via written submissions on a Friday. Submissions are then circulated to administration and press, and the following Tuesday, on the big stage, beneath the Kliegs and before the cameras, each cut is defended by someone from the administration whilst nine men, eyes narrowed, staring intently, some with daggers beneath their togas, lean forward prepared to pounce.
What transpired the 17th was a win for the administration. ACC, the guardians of our dear dog and cat friends, was represented by director Amy-Jo Sites. She came prepared with a handout and rebuttals stronger than council attacks. One proposed cut was withdrawn, so concise was her presentation, the other two cuts failed 8 to 1. Yep, Councilman Arp alone, again, against the world.
Then came micro-management time, where city officials explained why they needed someone to manage city property, or the utility of glazing windows, or why they had increased the parking budget line. Council flailed. One question — how to manage the hundreds of vacant lots and derelict properties that befall the city due to one reason or another — met with a neatly laid out explanation only to be subjected to a dozen “what ifs.” “Couldn’t you find some realtor to sell the properties for pennies on the dollar?” “Perhaps,” was the answer, but it still takes someone to manage the process from the city side given the laws, regulations and, bureaucratic necessities. More flailing followed and council decided to hold the matter until next week so as to flail away some more.
Other cuts were explained in grand detail by the administration and bits and pieces of the cuts were gently withdrawn, or suffered five-to-four or eight-to-one defeats.
On to micromanagement. One administration proposal, the affiliation with Fort Wayne United, a group dedicated to helping at risk black youth find a positive path forward, was to move a program laterally from Community Development to the Police Department. Nearly 100 serious faces there to support the proposal, including a judge, the head of the United Wayne, and a minister or two. For nearly an hour the defense was presented by the Police Chief and others, supported by Judge Dan Heath and debated by council with passion and conviction. Mister 1-to-8, Jason Arp, had proposed the cut because he felt the job should be done by either a 501c3 or a church. On the other side, the chief said the role of officers has greatly changed since the 50s and an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. Council President Didier gave a heartfelt soliloquy in support of the program that sprang from his loss of an uncle years ago to a teen gunman. The house gave him a long round of applause. The cut lost one-to-eight, with guess who casting the only vote. It was mostly a waste of time, except for the display of community support for the program.
And, then there was the lengthy discussion about glazing windows! It was, in short, another micromanaged waste of time. The building manager plans ahead for repairs, they were included in the city budget, they included some $100k for replacing bad windows on the Clinton Street side of Citizens Square. We all learned a bit about glazing, and wasted half an hour, during which councilmen complained that walls were being moved in the building, plumbing repaired and light bulbs changed without their knowledge! It was comical, if not ludicrous.
Cut Night pointed up a fundament problem: council doesn’t do its homework. There were too many “oh, so that’s what you do” moments at the table. We learned that during an open house at Animal Care and Control only one…one…councilman, Geoff Paddock, bothered to show. Ditto other departments, as well. So, what to do? Perhaps a real committee system would be a start, where matters are studied before debate. Perhaps councilmen might return phone calls proffered by the administration inviting them to review materials. Perhaps the administration could reach just a bit farther across the table to include and inform before unveiling major initiatives. Over the past few years it has become obvious that snippy spite gets in the way of cooperation between council and the administration; but happily, thanks to those many human frailties, every Tuesday night features the best of drama and comedy, and it’s free.