The bully’s pulpit

Mayor Marie Gilmore is wont to bemoan the failure of the public to attend meetings at which issues regarding City finances are discussed.

As it happens, the Mayor herself was absent last Thursday from the special City Council meeting called to discuss the City budget for the next two fiscal years.  (So was Councilwoman Lena Tam).  Had the Mayor been there, she might have gained some insight about why citizens are no-shows at such events.

Thursday’s meeting was billed as a “study session” on the budget.  But it morphed into a study of how intemperate City Manager John Russo gets when the public greets his efforts with anything less than unalloyed approbation.

After a cogent presentation by Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam and Controller Fred Marsh, presiding Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft opened the meeting for public comments. Six people spoke.  It’s usually Council’s turn next, but, as he frequently does these days, Russo grabbed the floor.

The City Manager’s performance gave new meaning to the term “bully pulpit.” Adopting a tone of self-righteous outrage, he denounced the “fantasies” and “shibboleths” voiced by the public commenters.  He deplored their “fundamental lack of understanding” of California tax law.  He declared that “there’s numbers and then there’s realities.”  And he proclaimed to the gang of ingrates that he and his staff had achieved an unprecedented triumph with the proposed budget.

Vice Mayor Ashcraft then called a recess.

The public commenters did not deserve what Russo dished out.  In fact, they made a number of legitimate points that merited thoughtful responses.  We’ll mention just two.

City Auditor Kevin Kearney brought up the disparity between the cuts imposed on the Recreation and Parks department and the lack of cuts proposed for the fire and police departments.  As usual, Kearney got his facts straight:

  • Police and fire represent 68% of the General Fund budget; Rec/Park represents 5%.
  • Staff proposes no cuts to the police budget.  The fire budget will be trimmed by all of $180,000 through reduced equipment purchases and overtime and increased fees.  At the same time, the Rec/Park budget will be slashed by $112,000.
  • Rec/Park thus takes only a slightly smaller hit than police and fire despite having a budget only a fraction of the size of the public safety budgets.

It seems a fair question why the cost-cutting burden falls disproportionately on Rec/Park compared to public safety.  But Russo ignored it – even though police chief Mike Noonan and former IAFF local 689 president and current fire chief Mike D’Orazi were in the audience and, presumably, available to explain why their departments could not share more of the sacrifice.  (By contrast, when Russo wanted to bolster his argument for building a new state-of-the-art fire station he summoned D’Orazi to the podium to announce his wholehearted assent).

Later, Alameda Citizens Task Force member Ken Peterson pointed out, as he has in the past, that the General Fund budget reflects only a portion of the money spent by the City on public services.  Again, the comment was well-grounded in fact:

  • In FY 2011-12, the last fiscal year for which audited financial statements are available, the City spent $125 million on activities conducted through its various “governmental funds,” of which the General Fund is one.
  • The total revenue from property and other local taxes received by these governmental funds over the same period was only $65 million.

The obvious question, of course, is how the City manages to pay for the spending not covered by tax revenues.  One can find the reconciliation on pages 26 and 27 of the 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, but the numbers are hardly self-explanatory.  (What, for example, does “use of money and property” encompass?)

Moreover, the multiplicity of separate City-controlled funds feeds into another relevant issue:  the extent to which staff achieves a “balanced” budget – which, we learned, is not the same as a “structurally balanced” budget — by shifting expenses previously charged to the General Fund to other funds and by moving money outright from these funds to the General Fund.

Take, for example, the $300,000 staff proposes to transfer from the Bayport Assessment District to the General Fund to cover part of the shortfall in FY 2013-14.  As described by Warmerdam, this was “found money” discovered by staff.  An onlooker can’t be blamed for imagining a team of spelunkers hunting through City Hall for previously hidden bags of cash and for wondering what other buried treasure might be concealed in the crevices.

To Russo, raising questions such as these apparently demonstrates only the ignorance of the questioner.  Maybe so.  But as long as the City Manager chooses to excoriate rather than to explain, we’ll all remain clueless.

Already, Mayor Gilmore, like her predecessor, has strictly enforced the practice of limiting the public to three-minute speeches at regular Council meetings.  No questions allowed.  No dialogue permitted.  The result: no actual communication between the public and its elected or appointed officials.

One might have hoped that a “study session” would have been handled differently.  Hard as it may be for the City Manager to believe, there are at least a handful of people in Alameda other than City employees who know something about finance and even about municipal government.  (Joe VanWinkle’s M.B.A. from U.C.L.A. is not an honorary degree; Alameda voters thought enough of Doug deHaan to elect him to two terms on Council).  It is dismaying to see citizens who make the effort to study budget issues treated so dismissively.  If the price of speaking at a Council study session is offering oneself up as a target for Russonian ridicule, is it any surprise that so few people put in an appearance?

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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