Wednesday, April 08, 2009

April 8, 2009 City Council Meeting: Accountability vs. Micromanaging

Morristown City Council met yesterday.

The official meeting was routine. The work session that followed was anything but.

On the work session agenda were "car allowances, raises, and appraisals."

During the discussion that followed, Rick Trent said that increases in car allowances for City Administrator Jim Crumley and other staff were apparently negotiated in the past by Crumley and former City Mayor Gary Johnson without the knowledge of City Council. Crumley shot back that these increases were in the budgets that were approved by City Council.

Based on the back-and-forth at the meeting, it appears that the increases were in the budget, but Council didn't know that the increases were in the budget figures that they approved.

Then there was a lengthy but quite civil debate about money spent on appraisals at Walters Drive intersections. Councilmembers claimed that they had indicated in work session that they did not want to proceed with the Walters Drive work while Crumley said it was his understanding in work session that the Council wanted him to spend money on an estimated rather than a full-blown and costly appraisal of right-of-way costs.

Discussion of these items resulted in Mayor Barile accusing councilmembers of trying to "micromanage" the operations of the city---"micromanage" being the Mayor's way of chastising council members who disturb the smooth flow of government business by asking too many questions about what is going on.

Councilmembers Rick Trent and Claude Jinks took offense at the Mayor's characterization of their concerns as micromanaging.

Claude Jinks said the public is fed up. He added that that is the reason there are so many people running for city council and that is the reason he had an opponent last time.

Jinks made it clear that he resented the Mayor's derogatory use of the term "micromanage" to describe what he views as responsible representation of the people who elected him.

Councilmember Kay Senter said it's a lack of communication. She also expressed some concerns about the current authority that the City Administrator has to spend or shift up to $10,000 of budgeted funds without prior Council approval.

It looks like some councilmembers are suddenly and belatedly finding out that spending and raises and increased car allowances--and who knows what else--are being doled out and they don't even know that these items are in the budget because they have been "negotiated" outside of official council meetings or allegedly "authorized" at work sessions without a vote.

Some councilmembers are starting to see that granting authority to the City Administrator to move money around in increments of up to $10,000 means there is very little accountability for city spending. The Council approves a budget and then the City Administrator --through multiple money transfers--can change a lot of things.

Of course, Mayor Barile is not the first politician to scream "micromanage" when questions are asked. County Mayor David Purkey and former Commission Chair Maudie Briggs used to throw that word around liberally when I or anyone else came to county commission meetings to ask about county or school spending and money being shifted around without authorization.

The micromanage epithet is a convenient one-word criticism of those who dare demand accountability from government officials. It sounds ominous and demeaning, but it's nothing more than political code for "don't be up here asking us about how we spend your money."

Another neat political code word that is thrown out when questions are raised is "vendetta." When legitimate questions are raised about the conduct of government business, the mere mention of the work "vendetta" is supposed to make people look at the questioner rather than the question.

But back to City Council and Mayor Barile. Labeling those who ask questions as micromanagers is childish and was clearly meant to be dismissive of legitimate concerns. Jinks rightly took offense at the Mayor's use of this word.

Elected government officials and citizens SHOULD be asking questions--lots of them. In fact, elected officials, above all others, have a DUTY to ask questions. It's not micromanaging, and it's not a vendetta. It's called doing your job.


Anonymous said...


Did it ever occur to the council to actually read the budget and KNOW what they were approving?

Tim N said...

Too many voters think that their only obligation is to vote and belive those representatives will always do right. Of course with only the one fish wrapper to report on local government don't expect them to critize and protect the citizens.