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It can seem like a circus…

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


Budget Hearings

A favorite trick of smaller government advocates is to starve government of resources at budget time, then point the finger when a job doesn’t get done, and follow by saying the work needs to be privatized because the private sector always does a better job.

With that in mind, please enjoy the 2018-2019 Budget Hearings featuring a cast of councilmen, including some who believe self-government to be the enemy of the Republic.

Consequently, they have posited and regularly reinforced a doctrine of no new employees, no new spending, no new nothing. They even have the current administration conditioned to self-censor. The smalls see struggling to repair roads, to provide public safety and deliver the other services of government as good public policy. They even have the administration kowtowing under the acquiescent phrase, “doing more with less.” In reality we are doing less with less.

So, when the director of a department makes a valid case for more money to resolve a pressing community need, some councilman will invariably call upon that department head to cut an equal sum from his or her budget to offset for the new initiative, and the other councilmen then lean forward in their chairs and purr, hmmm? It doesn’t matter whether the rest of the department is running on fumes — the philosophy is no new money, no new employees, public need be damned. Those very same councilmen then indignantly wave fingers in the air, whine about the number of constituent calls they have had to answer, and demand the administration do more and more and more, with less and less and less.

On the other hand, the administration hardly checks with the peons on council for their insights or recommendations, which ticks off most councilmen. Being strong personalities, they, of course want to construct the mayor’s budget in their image. One guesses they would, given more control, eschew the philosophy of smaller government.

But take comfort, councilmen — the mayor hardly reaches out to anyone else in the community, seldom calls his friends in the neighborhoods, or queries we simple folk on would make Fort Wayne a better community.

So, go ahead, invite our beloved mayor to your group’s meeting and watch. He lectures in an avuncular sort of way about his administration’s accomplishments, he talks about the jobs he’s created or the latest progress on some project his most capable team has initiated, but seldom will he sit in a small group, lean back, and listen to what you think is
needed to better our community. Ditto that with our councilmen who are hardly any more engaged with their constituents than Mayor Tom. Leading starts with listening.

Dogs and Ponys

To wit, our mayor recently conducted a news conference to unveil his new budget. Behind him an array of some 20 supporters, human props, moral supporter, there to show endorsement for his budget, and to provide quotes to the assembled media.

At the beginning of the news conference the mayor welcomed everyone, said a few introductory words of self-praise, and announced he would not take any questions from the media. Instead, he spun around, waved his arm in a broad sweeping gesture, and offered the props to speak on his behalf.

Interestingly, those props, mostly his employees, when questioned on the budget, admitted that they hadn’t seen the document, so were hardly qualified to explain its nuances beyond their narrow sliver, and certainly couldn’t enunciate the strategies and thinking that underpinned the $200 million in spending. Props. Dogs to the left of me, ponies to the right.

The mayor’s duck and run attitude may all spring from a recent news conference when he was asked a serious question about tax policy to which he stuttered and stammered in front of cameras rolling and scribbling reporters. He never did quite form a coherent response to the question, unless, that is, his response was a vow to avoid future open news conferences. Or, perhaps the mayor doesn’t have a philosophy upon which the budget is based.

If we look back over the past decade in which Tom has been mayor of his home town he has had precious few news conferences. He prefers canned events where a stage is set, props stand behind him, a statement is given and the media and a few minutes are given to questions. His contact with the public is mostly from the podium. That will soon
change in form rather than substance. In the ramp up to the campaign you can expect Mayor Henry walking in targeted neighborhoods to targeted doors surrounded by a pack of handlers who will whisk him quickly away should a citizen pose a serious question. It is more a circus, replete with more dancing dogs and decorated ponies, than interaction, fact-finding, outreach. And, sadly, the media waddles right along with the superficiality of contact in large part because there are so very few real reporters among the local media to demand answers, fewer still are the reporters who know which questions to ask, or are able to spot the omissions among the falderal.

Like anyone who has been in office a very, very long time Tom doesn’t like to be challenged, so he has his news conferences arranged so there is no news and no conference, just dogs and ponies and a bit of circus with a few clowns for visuals.

So, should you tune on City TV to see the razz-matazz of the budget hearings Tuesdays in October you can be sure that the mayor has made it an art form to manage the media and council, that he fully intends to keep council in the dark about his budget, and that he hardly entreats with the public in matters of how to spend your tax dollars.

As for those smaller government people, this disconnect between mayor and citizen aids their cause. Keeping it close to the vest means it is Tom’s budget, not ours, honed by his team, not by the community, presented largely without popular mandate. For the small government people it is easier to attack a budget that is an abstraction; consequently, it is easier to shortchange service funding in the budget, easier to point out the inevitable shortcomings, then easier to cut services altogether.

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