Letter: Dysfunctional City Hall

Letter: Dysfunctional City Hall

— To the Editor:

The entrenched pattern of city staff conduct can only be described as dysfunctional — a dynamic where conflict, misbehavior, neglect or abuse, in this case of residents, happens continually and regularly. The food truck issue is a perfect example.

Listening to council or staff, either a casual suggestion or order, was made at a Council retreat in 2013, regarding food trucks. Mobile vending was not a question of “should we?” but rather “do it.” This raised questions from businesses, civic associations, and residents, and the city manager established an Advisory Group. Key staff came from his office. OK, one misstep, corrected.

To start, city staff produced an initial “legislative proposal;” this was the backbone ordinance favoring food truck venders. And food truck owners/lobbyists became part of the citizen Advisory Group, which is a conflict of interest. As a result the citizen Advisory Group, with oversight from the city manager, was steered away from key mobile vender management points: number allowed in the city, and precise parking locations.

Complicating the Advisory Group’s work was the legal position offered by the city attorney’s office, which came to light only in the public hearing on May 17. The Planning Commission could have caught the zoning issue, but was given only an Information Memorandum, and not allowed to vote. Chairman Wagner eloquently and unflatteringly commented. This tactic of stifling boards and commissions is being increasingly used.

However, it was the public hearing on May 17 that demonstrated the depth of staff dysfunction and how the tools of good governance — citizen committees, citizen advisory groups, civic associations, and even business voices — can be trashed by a few protected actors who want to install a pet project.

1 –The vote was taken without a final Advisory Group report. Staff produced the final report, which showed unanimous votes that turned out to be disputed.

2 – In the Tuesday council work session it became clear that council members were divided on what unrestrained mobile vending would unleash on the city. We hit rock bottom when a council member, there for the entire public session-discussion-vote, told me he’d voted for the ordinance expiring October 2014. What he voted for was an ordinance expiring October 2015.

3 – Finally, the revised Ordinance was posted electronically on the city site, around 5 p.m. on Friday. On Saturday, staff put out only the rejected version. The ordinance before council was absent. One citizen noted, when handed the rule for the first time, standing at the speakers podium, perhaps the city expected speed-reading.

The bottom line: staff deliberately misinforms the public; legal issues surface under keen questioning; proposed law can go forward without the report of a city-appointed group, appropriate commissions, and boards; the city manager’s office lacks oversight and transparency; and some council member(s) don’t know what they vote for.

Critically, residents are being disenfranchised in a premeditated, and relentless way. This episode confirms that staff is running the city, and councils’ heads may be somewhere else. We’re grateful to Vice-Mayor Silberberg and Councilmen Chapman for pushing back.

Kathryn Papp, Alexandria