Sunday, February 24, 2008

IN AN ACT OF PRESERVATION: Councilman Wade Flags a Foul

The December 17th, 2007 Columbia City Council meeting afforded a rare glimpse of city government’s inner workings.

The executive branch, more commonly known as “Staff,” changed a key word in a historic preservation ordinance that Planning and Zoning (P&Z), a legislative body, had previously approved.

The word change came after that commission’s unanimous vote, and without their knowledge, advice or consent. The vote followed a vigorous debate and something you don’t see much at public meetings in council chambers.

Historic Preservation Commission chairman Brian Treece reached across the aisle – literally, over the handrail – to planning director Tim Teddy, rewording and reworking the ordinance as issues arose during P&Z’s discussion. To Council, they sent a minor miracle: with few changes, a major revision of a longstanding city law that had the unanimous support of commissions and departments.

Then, Staff changed a word and Council received a different new law.

Public Good

As historic preservation has become a well-recognized public good, communities nationwide have created commissions, tax incentives, protections, and special recognition for structures or landmarks of cultural or historical significance. Columbia, for instance, yearly selects ten “notable historic properties” to honor at a February gala.

To keep pace with local preservation, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and Planning Department revised the city ordinance that enables the commission to do its job. It was a first-time change that took 14 months, over a decade after the commission’s creation.

A virtual copy of a State-of-Missouri template, the ordinance stopped at Planning and Zoning for debate, revision, and most importantly, a yea or nay recommendation for the Council.

Advice and Consent

Legislative branch commissions like P&Z and HPC “advise” our city’s legislators – our councilpersons.

“To advise Council” sounds like a one-on-one relationship between commissioners and councilpersons. But what happened on Dec. 17th spotlighted a potent nuance that clouds the relationship: commission advice is channeled and filtered – through Staff.

The executive branch – our city manager and his “cabinet” – controls the commission recommendation timeline (the date advice finally arrives at council, 14 mos. for the HPC ordinance); the information flow and the route it takes; and in this case, key wording.

In the revised historic preservation ordinance, the words “to administer” left Planning and Zoning, somehow becoming “to advise” when the ordinance arrived at Council.

Fourth Ward councilperson Jerry Wade was not amused. “I am very uncomfortable with Staff changing language that was forwarded to us by Planning and Zoning,” he said.

Wade explained that council members need to see commission language alongside staff recommendations, not have the language replaced by staff recommendations.

Perhaps seeing shades of good ‘ol boys in smoky back rooms, Fifth Ward councilperson Laura Nauser wondered aloud if recommendations from city attorney Fred Boeckman were ordinance-driven or “just the way we’ve always done things.”

Pop and Fresh – Turnover!

By replacing “to administer” with “to advise,” the executive branch was preserving its ability to filter and control information from one legislative body to another, an ability it should not rightly have.

As a historic preservation commissioner and chairperson of the city’s finance commission, I enjoyed serving as a council adviser. But I never cared for all the Staff filters: in football vernacular, the Staff Block; the Staff Punt; Staff Interference; and the Staff Foul, which Wade flagged on Dec. 17th.

Staff filters are leftovers from a paternalistic executive branch that worked well when Columbia was small, and needed Ray Beck’s unobstructed visionary hand.

Now, nearing the 100,000-population mark, we need a turnover. More people mean more complications, and an increasing demand for effective power sharing and labor division among executives and legislators.

Council needs its own legislative branch administrative assistant to facilitate communications between commissioners, constituents, and councilpersons; its own office space; and a stipend for meetings and time spent poring over pending legislation.

In short, it needs a level playing field.

Founding Folk

The polite but firm confrontation between legislator Wade and executive branch staffers was exactly what our Founders intended – a heated but healthy exchange where each side stands its ground without taking the low road.

Staff changed a word, but that can happen. It’s part of inter-branch political positioning and power jockeying. Bill Watkins is a fine city manager and he has a fine team. It’s not about people; it’s about process. And the process needs to change.

What keeps a political foul from becoming a Jayhawk-jarring loss is exactly what Jerry Wade did – the legislative branch standing up for itself, in this case to preserve an important prerogative: to receive advice and consent from citizen commissions – unaltered and unfiltered.

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Business Times

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