Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Will The Mayor Do For Me?

The questions and answers at Richardson's mayoral forums have been heavy on the personal attributes of the two candidates, Laura Maczka and Amir Omar. What are their qualifications, experience, leadership skills, etc. For the April 2, 2013, forum held at RISD's MST Magnet School, sponsored by the Highland Terrace NA, I decided to take a different perspective.

I decided to keep my ears open for promises made by the candidates, promises of what they would attempt to accomplish in the next council term. The word "promise" is used loosely, as both candidates are aware of and emphasized that the mayor can't unilaterally implement anything, that without the support of the council, the city staff, and the community, any mayor's program can't advance. With that caveat, what I heard the candidates' promise is after the jump.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive. It's only what I heard in one forum. The candidates were responding to questions from the audience. If a topic wasn't asked about, the candidates probably didn't discuss it. There may be other promises the candidates are making in this election campaign that weren't mentioned Tuesday evening.

Also note that if I say, for example, "Omar promised..." without mentioning Maczka's position, I am not implying that Maczka opposes Omar's proposal. It may be simply that Maczka didn't address that proposal, either pro or con.

Finally, note again that if I say, for example, "Maczka promised..." that I don't mean that literally. Neither candidate promised to do more than what is in the power of the mayor to accomplish.

With those caveats, here's what's the next mayor will be doing for me (and everyone else in Richardson):

City Charter Review: Both candidates promised to support a full city charter review in the next term.

Selection of Mayor pro tem: Both candidates promised to support the selection of the next mayor pro tem in open session, versus the prior practice of doing this in closed, executive session.

Changes to council agendas: Maczka promised to add a regular agenda item at the end of each council meeting for the council to discuss and propose future agenda items.

Televise audit committee meetings: Omar promised to televise city council audit committee meetings.

Benchmark Richardson's use of debt: Omar promised to benchmark Richardson against other cities in the use of bonds and debt to finance city spending.

Zero-based budgeting: Both candidates expressed support for the idea of zero-based budgeting and a top-to-bottom departmental financial review. Both candidates fudged their answers enough to give themselves wriggle room later as to exactly what that means.

Less trash collection: Maczka gave trash collection as an example of an expense in the city budget that she would look at to save money. She says Richardson residents enjoy four separate collections on a weekly basis: two for trash, one for recyclables, one for bulky items. She promised to look at this, perhaps reducing the number of collections or adding a fee for some collections.

Less tree planting: Maczka gave the cost of watering the trees planted as part of the "Tree the Town" program as an example of an expense in the city budget that might not be the best use of Richardson tax money.

Reform use of fund sweeps: Omar promised to look into reducing the fees collected for the city services funds that are in surplus year after year, rather than sweeping the surplus funds into the general fund.

Change pensions to 401k: Both candidates expressed a willingness to look at the possibility of converting the defined benefit pension system for city employees to a defined contribution 401k-type system. Neither candidate promised to make the change, only to look at it. Maczka promised that any changes would apply only to future employees, not current employees.

Incentivize buyers of run-down houses: Omar promised to champion his proposal of a $100,000 pilot program that would incentivize buyers of houses in declining neighborhoods, buyers who commit to living in the houses, instead of letting them be sold to absentee landlords who are unlikely to do more than minimum maintenance. In a rare explicit disagreement on a proposal, Maczka said that if $100,000 is available, it would be better spent on suggestions coming from surveys of homeowner associations.

Natatoria: Omar promised to partner with school districts on, for example, natatoria, so that city residents can gain access to year-round swimming and the cash-strapped RISD school district can gain access to needed funds to operate these facilities.

Narcotics squad: Omar promised to fund and staff a narcotics squad within the Richardson Police Department. In a rare explicit disagreement on a proposal, Maczka said a narcotics squad isn't needed because the function is already handled by the regular policing function.

Transparency of campaign donations: Both candidates promised to list on their campaign websites all of their campaign donors. It wasn't clear whether they promised to publish these lists *before* the start of early voting, which was part of the question.

Crackdown on speeding: Both candidates promised to crack down on speeding on Grove Rd. Omar said, "Yes, I will." Maczka said, "Absolutely." Lucky you if you live on Grove Rd., or not so lucky, depending on your driving habits.

If you are like me, you may be surprised at how long this list is. It's easy to focus on the horse race aspect of an election campaign -- who's up, who's down, who's attacking whom. But for the residents of Richardson, this is more than a horse race. The outcome is obviously important for the lives and careers of the two candidates involved, but it's even more important for the future direction of Richardson.


mccalpin said...

"Selection of Mayor pro tem: Both candidates promised to support the selection of the next mayor pro tem in open session, versus the prior practice of doing this in closed, executive session."

Just for the sake of clarity, because so many people misunderstand what the process actually was, neither the mayor pro tem (nor the mayor, up until this year) were "selected" in a closed, executive session.

What actually happens is the following:
1. the council convenes in open session at a meeting after the election numbers have been readied by Dallas County
2. they do the invocation, pledges of allegiance, and invite public input in the Visitors Section.
3. "canvass the returns" (i.e., accept the election results as computed by the Dallas County Elections Department (despite being in 2 counties, we hire Dallas County to do the whole thing).
4. have each elected council member swear the oath of office.
5. Only then does the council go into executive session to discuss the merits of anyone wanting to be mayor pro tem (or mayor up until this year) - note that the council is forbidden by State law from taking a vote in executive session.
6. Then the council comes back into open session and takes the vote on the mayor pro tem - that is, every single council member is on the record as to how he/she voted.
7. finally, the meeting is adjourned.

It is unfortunate that so many people believe the facile statement that the "mayor" (and mayor pro tem) is chosen in secret - the mayor was always chosen in public - it was only the discussion by the members of the council that was in executive session - as permitted by the Texas Opening Meetings Act.

Also note that the public has a chance to make comments on who they would like to see as mayor pro tem in the Visitors Section, which is BEFORE the mayor pro tem is actually discussed or chosen, a fact that I imagine has eluded most people.

If both Amir and Laura want to do the discussion in open session, that's fine - it is certainly within the law to do so - but people shouldn't be mislead (by others, not by you, Mark) into believing that the previous method was illegal or even sneaky.


Destiny said...

Bill, you're splitting hairs. The vote does not take place behind closed doors, but the decision does. I understand them wanting to come out and present a unified front but I also think that's stupid since often times they are anything but. For some of them that means their very first act as a city council member will be deceiving the public. By fighting it out off camera and out of the public eye, then being asked to put on a fake smile and vote unanimously, they are told their constituent don't need to know everything. I'll take transparency any day over simply keeping up appearances.

mccalpin said...

Destiny, I respectfully disagree. The discussion in executive session allows them to speak to each other freely about things that they would be hesitant to say in public. Do you really want councilmembers discussing in public aspects of a councilmember's personal life that would have a negative impact on his/her council performance as mayor or mayor pro tem? No, I really don't think you do.

As for a councilmember putting on a fake smile in order to present a unified front, I suspect (without proof, of course) that this happens less than you think.

Did the council put on a united front in 2007 when they elected Steve Mitchell? Nope, it was a 4 to 3 vote for Steve Mitchell. Did the council put on a united front in 2009 when Gary Slagel was re-elected? Nope (remember that Steve voted against Gary). Did they put on a united front in 2011? Maybe...but it's also possible that no one other than Bob and Laura were electable with that group.

It's easy to criticize and say that they are telling people that "their constituent[s] don't need to know everything", but the fact is that at some point, we have to have some discretion. Our council is allowed to discuss our city manager's performance in private because what quality city manager would come work here if he/she were raked over the coals in public? Our council is allowed to discuss certain personnel issues in private, because they sometimes contain issues that even you don't want to know about - and you are a worldly enough woman to know what I'm talking about.


Sassy Texan said...

Yes, closed door meeting really raked Bill Keffler over the coals when they gave him carte blanche to ask Deloitte Touche out of Chicago to figure out a way to give Keffler a $350,000 bonus to educate his children.

That must have been an interesting closed meeting since Steve kept publically saying they wanted to pay him more.

But law says they can review the city manager in private.


Mark Steger said...

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