Is there something fundamentally broken in the relationship between the Tucson City Council and the city’s top staff?
Last week the council found out that the $5 million in raises it approved for all city staff a few days earlier won’t actually cost $5 million but will instead cost $8 million.
A few council members accused top city officials of being purposefully obtuse in documents submitted to the council for consideration before the vote in that those documents only alluded to the effect of the raise on the city’s general fund, which pays for most city services, such as parks and public safety.
The $3 million balance of the cost will come from the city’s enterprise fund departments in which specific fees pay for the departments’ operations, such as water rate fees in the water department. Council members insisted they weren’t told of this extra cost.
This isn’t the first time the council has been miffed at city staff for pulling a fast one, as they see it, but it is the second time since a rash of such incidents caused Mayor Jonathan Rothschild to work with the City Manager Richard Miranda on a number of reforms to improve council-staff communications.
That it happened again is perhaps a sign that there must be something endemically wrong in the relationship between the policy makers and the policy administrators.
Cruddy council-staff relations came to a head in 2011 and 2012. In fall of 2011, the council brought the chaotic reign of City Manager Mike Letcher to a merciful close by firing him and hiring Miranda as interim manager. But shortly after giving Miranda the job permanently in 2012, the council and Miranda’s staff had an awful spring and summer
It started with Councilman Paul Cunningham’s boozy solicitations of a couple of female staffers during a TREO junket to San Diego, which came about the same time the council learned through an audit by the newly formed audit commission that city taxpayers had for years been paying for funding deficits of about $1 million annually in the city’s golf enterprise, which was supposed to be paying for itself.
The council, led by Councilwoman Regina Romero, asserted that city taxpayers were subsidizing golf but city staff disagreed. The council’s version won the day, of course, and the row launched a series of reforms over the next year for golf operations.
Then in early July the council found out that the Federal Transportation Authority had told the city in March it needed to buy another streetcar to meet its regulatory provisions. The staff sat on the information while it tried to work out whether the purchase was really necessary but then sprang the information on the council a few days before a deadline from the streetcar manufacturer to get it built in time for the then-intended launch date. The council was forced to OK the $3.6 million purchase even though there was no funding to pay for it and it would add to the amount of money the city would need to borrow to complete the streetcar project.
A week after that, the council found out that city staff had quietly funneled about $1 million of leftover grant money into the restoration of the Steinfeld warehouse even though it had specifically said when it sold the warehouse to an arts organization for $1 that it didn’t want city money used for the rehab project.
After all of this, council and staff agreed to find ways to improve communications and, prompted mostly by the Cunningham affair, directed the city attorney to draft a code of conduct for council members. Rankin told the council at a December retreat that he was still working on the code but that he had expanded it to encompass a set of working rules governing not only council behavior, but city staff as well.
At that retreat, Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said as delicately as she could that she has a hard time trusting city staff, but that relations seemed to be improving under Miranda.
But staff will tell you that trust goes both ways and miscommunication is not a one-way street. City managers have bemoaned for years the influence and power of council members’ chief aides. The aides call staff and harangue them about their bosses’ pet projects, or to try to get their wards bumped up on the street repair list and so on. Some aides are respected among the staff but some are loathed for their forceful and prickly natures.
Part of the rules Rankin is drafting will spell out how council members and their staffs are supposed to talk to city staff and provide some kind of council-sanctioned penalty for abuse. How the council will police itself is a mystery. Rankin said at the retreat he’ll have the draft code ready for review “this summer.”
One of the things Rothschild wanted to do after his election was improve the city’s and the council’s reputation. One of the ways to do that was to eliminate the constant drumbeat of scandal beleaguering the town the past few years and to put an end to council and staff finger pointing and misunderstandings.
But new behavior code or no, the onus is on Miranda. If he doesn’t want to be the next in a long line of fired or forced-to-resign city managers (there have been 11 city managers, including interims, since 1990) he has to make sure his staff isn’t responsible for making the council look foolish and ignorant like they did last week.