Additional Thoughts (Apr 14, 2019) – Mayoral Veto of Mental Health Millage Compromise

Apr 14, 2019 | City Council

The following was originally published in my April 14, 2019 Newsletter in the “Additional Thoughts” section

Additional thoughts…

Our last meeting was full of surprises, and even more surprises a couple days later…

Ahead of the last meeting, I wrote about two different agenda items that related to use of the millage rebate:

  • A resolution from Mayor Taylor and CM Griswold that committed all the funding allocations promised in 2017, but with explicit explanation that the resolution “does not ratify, void, modify, or have any bearing whatsoever” on that previous 2017 commitment of millage rebate funds.
  • A resolution from CM Lumm that allocated millage rebate funds in close to exact proportions dictated by a public survey authorized by City Council on November 19, 2018.  At a previous budget meeting, the city administrator told us that he would be bound to follow the 2017 resolution in the absence of further direction from council. The Lumm resolution offered that “further direction” but the Taylor/Griswold explicitly did not.  

Ultimately, City Council passed both resolutions. The Lumm resolution passed only after helpful amendments from CM Ackerman, acknowledging funds already allocated by the Taylor/Griswold resolution. I would not have supported the Lumm resolution before it was amended by CM Ackerman. I also had questions about how the allocations lined up with previously identified goals, i.e. were there meaningful budget line items that matched these allocations? I was given specific examples of how the funds would be used and I was satisfied that the allocations were reasonable. I also asked if the numbers listed in the resolution for this year’s budget were intended to apply to future budgets re: the millage rebate (answer: they were not).

When both resolutions passed, it seemed a perfectly reasonable compromise: the 2017 commitments of funding were guaranteed, and the millage rebate funds were allocated in a way that acknowledged community concerns. Council received many emails, thanking us for committing those funds as promised in 2017. For months, many advocates for the 2017 resolution budget commitments have told me: it did not matter where the money came from, the only important thing was that the funding happen.  

A few days after our meeting, Mayor Taylor issued a veto of the Lumm Resolution, effectively destroying the compromise that acknowledged community concerns.

The Taylor/Griswold budget commitments are meaningless without anything to displace the 2017 resolution. Standing alone, the Taylor/Griswold budget commitments simply re-affirm the 2017 resolution; it is the equivalent of heads I win, tails you lose. However, in this case no one “wins,” because we are told explicitly that the veto itself has no impact on any funding for anything.

In his explanation, Mayor Taylor reassures us that his veto will not reduce any of the spending included in the Lumm resolution (mental health services, street repairs, safe drinking water initiatives, water/sewer infrastructure improvements, or public safety/police), “Not by one penny.” Though not in his explanation, it’s worth pointing out: the Mayor’s veto also will not increase funding for any of the purposes listed in the Taylor/Griswold resolution.  

The Mayor expects this obstinate position— a protest with admittedly no effect as to outcome— to be understood as an effort to “maintain our fidelity” and “an obligation of honor.” 

In his explanation, the Mayor suggests that the use of a public opinion survey to influence even a small amount of budget is “unwise and unreliable” because we are in a representative democracy, where elected representatives are obligated by “fiduciary duties.” According to the Mayor, “[the public] do not have the benefit of the input of others.” I can accept that this is his position. However, I would note: funding for the survey was approved by City Council on 11/19/18 with clear explanation that it be used to guide spending of the millage rebate funds.  

If, as he says now, public survey is an “unwise and unreliable” way to guide spending decisions, the Mayor could and should have vetoed that 11/19/18 resolution and saved the city $50,000. The current veto happens so late in the budgeting process that there is virtually no time for staff to even adjust budget proposals yet one more time. It would seem that the city spent $50,000 so that the Mayor could effectively run down the clock. 

In the media, one of my colleagues is quoted as using the word “undemocratic” to describe this veto. I don’t think that’s the right word and I don’t think policy debate is enhanced by that kind of heated rhetoric. A mayoral veto is clearly part of our process at council, it is part of our democracy. However, I legitimately struggle to make sense of this veto on this particular issue. A few words that come to my mind as I have pondered the veto: ineffectual, self-serving, impulsive.  Mostly, though, it is petty.