Friday, December 23, 2016

Shuffling the Deck for Aldermen Liaison Commissions

The deck that was stacked by the administration for the appointments of liaisons to the city commissions was shuffled in the special called meeting on Monday night.   

Please see my original post on this subject here: 

Deck is Stacked with Board Liaison Appointments

I struggled with how to report on this, but I decided to begin with the video, and end with some of my commentary, even though my commentary repeats some of Sarah Freeman's observations on the timeline.  Ms. Freeman attended the meeting, recorded it, edited the video, and referenced times in the video where various things were discussed. She also provided some commentary. I merely uploaded it and viewed it a few times. She wisely edited out discussions concerning the citizens who would serve on the commissions. According to her, one can get an audio version of the full meeting from the city. Regular BMA meetings are videoed, but this meeting was held in a conference room and official video is not available. For this reason we owe Ms. Freeman a debt of gratitude for the time and effort it took to provide the public with transparency.   

Here is the video timeline provided by her to us, as well as some commentary by her:   

This video was trimmed from one-hour in length to approximately one-half that time. The entire audio of the meeting may be obtained through a TN Open Records request submitted to the City Clerk, Michele Betty. This video was shot and the transcriptions created by Sarah Wilkerson Freeman. 

00:05 The Board of Mayor and Aldermen, staff, and City Attorney file in a take their seats in the Mayor’s Conference Room.
1:00 Mayor Mike Palazzolo calls the meeting to order. They welcome the newly elected alderman, Dean Massey.
2:04 Palazzolo states that the aldermen’s “packets” (documents reviewed for the meeting) had been made public.
3:04 Alderman Forrest Owens nominates Alderman Mary Ann Gibson for Vice Mayor. She was unanimously elected.
3:26 Alderman Liaison appointments:
3:42 David Harris, City Attorney, addresses the body on aspects of the Charter and Ordinances that apply.
5:10 City Administrator Patrick Lawton further explains Charter and Ordinance stipulations in regard to aldermen liaisons for certain commissions.
6:27 Lawton explains that the Ordinance states that Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) alderman liaison will stay in that position for his or her term of office. Alderman Gibson had the position in 2016, but the Administration’s slate for 2017 awarded that appointment to Alderman Owens. Instead, the Ordinance seems to indicate that Ms. Gibson should continue to serve in that position through her term of office.
7:56 John Barzizza invokes a point of order. He states that last year Mr. Lawton called him and said that Alderman Gibson wanted the Economic and Development liaison position which Mr. Barzizza held. Mr. Barzizza wanted to retain that position, so Mr. Lawton asked Barzizza to relinquish his BZA positon to Ms. Gibson instead. At that point, the Ordinance was not invoked.
9:04 Ms. Gibson stated, “BZA was never even part of my conversation, so I thought that you did not want that.”
9:35 Mr. Barzizza presses to understand why the Ordinance requirements were not enforced when he was the BZA liaison. “We should have addressed it last year.”
10:11 Alderman Barzizza indicates that the episode involved Mr. Lawton’s efforts to influence the liaison appointments. Mr. Lawton: “No way, no how do I have the authority to say this alderman will have this position, this alderman will have that position.”
11:22 Barzizza: “I respectfully protest since it wasn’t brought up last year. I respectfully protest now that it happens that we just found out after, and no disrespect to you [Alderman Gibson] because it is certainly not your fault.”
11:40 David Harris restates the Ordinance.
12:23 Lawton: “Alderman Barzizza, all due respect, I was not aware of this language. When I was looking at this today, going back through my notes, making sure we’re prepared for this evening, I saw this in here, I called the City Attorney and I said, ‘Mr. Harris, help me interpret what I am looking at here because this appears to read this way.’ I was not aware of this language in this section of the Code of Ordinances regarding the BZA until this afternoon and had it clarified with the City Attorney.”
13:10 Alderman Dean Massey asks to see exactly where the language is in the Ordinance.
14:34 Gibson reiterated that last year when they made the selections the BZA liaison appointment was “never on my radar.” But she did want to retain it now. She stated that “We had our one-on-one yesterday for another discussion with our attorney and I did communicate that yesterday afternoon to our Administrator and so I explained that I would like to do that [retain BZA liaison position]. I am certain that is where the conversation started with the Ordinance.”
15:42 Massey points out that the language in the Ordinance allows for a change—“the language says that it is concurrent with their respective term of office or appointment.” Gibson states that she is “not unclear on that.”
16:37 Barzizza says that he is just pointing out that it wasn’t addressed last year and he is “pushing back as a result of that.”
16:38 Patrick reiterates “Again, Alderman Barzizza, I apologize. I was not aware of the language, John, at that point, it was only today.” Barzizza says that Lawton did not need to apologize and “Let’s just move on.”
17:00 The meeting moves on.  Harris explains the quasi-judicial Planning Commission and DRC provisions in the Ordinance.
17:49 Alderman Liaison Appointments:
Palazzolo: “What you have been provided is only a recommended slate. At this time you can talk among, or trade, bring up commissions you may or may not want.”
The selection in liaisons is not defined in the Charter specifically.  But in the past, the Aldermen took turns in choosing and changed up the sequence in which they chose every year. It should be noted that since 2015, the Administration has instead prepared “slates” of appointments. 
Palazzolo: “There has been no pattern in twelve to twenty years of making the slate in front of you. What we did was we assembled what people served on last year put that beside, to fill [the positions formerly held by] the alderman that just retired from the Board, those positions, and kind of slot them through with peoples’ different various backgrounds. And so at this point in time this is open to your selection. It is good open governing that you guys discuss it, opposed to what we have done in the past where you communicate with Patrick. Patrick is unfortunately at times the fall guy.  We communicate back. Again, it is all settled already. This format tonight lets you discuss it more and open with your colleagues. What a great time for that. So the table, the floor, is open for anyone who would like to make any horse trading, changes, any discussion, dialogue.” He then adds Alderman Gibson to the BZA as it fulfills an ordinance requirement.
20:15 Floor is opened. Massey brings up a scheduling conflict with two commissions on his “slate:” Environmental and Great Hall.
21:16 Massey requests to “horse trade” with Alderman Rocky Janda for the Personnel Advisory Commission. He explained that he is an insurance broker by profession and that Alderman Klevan [unseated by Massey] had the position last year. Janda agrees to trade PAC for the Environmental Commission position.
22:23 John Barzizza asks to do some horse trading with Janda for Financial Advisory Commission. Janda says emphatically, “Nope. I want that one.”
22:48 Massey: “Mayor, one of the things that I have heard from some of the citizens is that we have two aldermen that have control of some of these quasi-judicial and other very important commissions. And that I don’t think it was done intentionally, but Alderman Owens got PC [Planning Commission], BZA [Board of Zoning Appeals] and Design Review. And then Alderman Janda has the Audit [Commission], the Financial Advisory [Commission], and then you [Janda] have given up the Personnel Advisory Commission. . . . And then the Retirement.”
23:44 Janda: “I think it is important that we have a vertical in terms of knowing the numbers and I am hesitant to give up the Personnel. We have the raises there. We have the benefits there. I think it is important that the person who is in the FAC have definite communication with you, and I will have to have communication in Personnel so we know what we are doing in terms of our budgeting and stuff. It’s as needed [it meets “as needed”] and it is also the first six months . . . . I have expertise in this area. Done it. But that’s one reason I like the Personnel Advisory Commission because you know what the raises are going to be and you know how it is going to affect . . . you already know essentially what’s about to happen. And you’ll get communication on that, but I have had those [commissions] I guess for two or three years.” [Alderman Klevan had PAC in 2016.]
24:34  Massey: “The perception is that we have lost our system of checks and balances.”
24:38 Janda: “Well, that’s what you guys are for. You can attend, anybody . . . of course you ask permission, I don’t know if they communicated that to you, before you go to someone’s commission. But you know everyone’s welcome at every commission meeting. And every alderman can be. Y’all are part of the system of checks and balances. Plus the commission is made up of citizens. Don’t’ forget that. The FAC’s got twenty-four.”
 Owens: “I was not exactly thrilled about having all three of the development commissions, so now that with Mary Ann having Board of Zoning Appeals I feel much more better about it. I mean I did serve . . . I have a Master’s degree in City Planning and served here for ten years. So, Design Review and Planning I am comfortable with. By nature of this discussion here today it kind of evened out a little better than it was originally slated to be.”
26:07 Barzizza: “Forrest, would you give up Parks and Rec.”
Owens considered it, but asked if there was another one he was interested in.
Barzizza: “How about Design Review?”
26:43 Owens: “I would be winning to give up Design Review.”
Aldermen Owens made a motion that the aldermen commission liaison appointments be accepted as discussed and the vote was unanimous to close the selection process. The meeting continued. Citizen members of the commissions were reviewed and voted on.
In the final analysis, the three quasi-judicial development commissions were divided among three different aldermen as had been the practice in the past. Alderman Janda retained three of the financially related commissions, but Alderman Massey secured the liaison position for the Personnel Advisory Commission, one that is critical to the budgeting process. 

As Alderman Owens remarked, “By nature of this discussion here today it kind of evened-out a little better than it was originally slated to be.” Indeed. But the pre-meeting “slate” system created an unfortunate dynamic in which two aldermen pre-emptively held significant power over future developments and financial sectors of city government. This placed the onus on the aldermen who had been granted no such power to confront their colleagues and try to wrestle even some positions away. That is not exactly a democratic process, it certainly isn’t fair nor wise. Likewise, it was discovered that the Ordinance had neither been read nor followed in previous years by the Administration.
But the light has been shown on how our city government works when the voices and concerns of the people are represented and the camera is rolling. That is a victory.

As Mayor Palazzolo stated, “And now the work begins.” 

My Commentary: 

It is interesting that four out of the five aldermen seemed to have issues with the "slate" that Patrick Lawton had submitted. Only Rocky Janda seemed comfortable with his assignments, as he cited the advantages of "vertical integration" in budgeting and finance matters.

Besides the obvious issues of concentration of power in the "slate", the administration itself had two immediate changes:  1. Mary Anne Gibson had been assigned to be liaison to the Library Commission. There is no liaison to the Library Commission.  2. Mary Anne Gibson had lost her position on the Board of Zoning Appeals on the slate, and it had been given to Forrest Owens. This is despite this (from the Commercial Appeal article):  

"It's not perfect, but it's recommendations based on experience and boards members have served on in the past," City Administrator Patrick Lawton said of the process earlier in the day."

(Note: If serving as a  liaison to a particular commission in the past was a criteria, why was this position moved on the slate from Mary Anne Gibson to Forrest Owens?)  

That was the least of the problems, it turned out. Not only did Mary Anne Gibson want to remain the liaison to the Board of Zoning Appeals, it also was against the charter to change the liaison to this particular commission in the middle of the term, without her consent!  Patrick Lawton claimed he only discovered this the day before when looking over the charter. From what was said in the meeting, it is quite possible that Mary Ann Gibson called this to his attention.

Then it gets even more embarrassing for the administration. John Barzizza noted that he had specifically been asked to give up this (or another) position the prior year by Patrick Lawton, and now he finds out that this went against the charter. He registered a protest.  Mary Anne Gibson says she had not originally even expressed an interest in the BZA position, and correctly distanced herself from the decision to take the position away from Mr. Barzizza. Now that she has served on it, she wants to stake her claim.  All this discussion takes place in the beginning of the video, as noted above by Sarah Freeman.  I found this quite fascinating. There are more details that can be accessed by viewing the video.

Because of the publicity of the issue raised by Sarah Freeman reported in this blog, the questions by the Commercial Appeal writer in response to the issues raised in the blog, and finally the admission that there were two large errors on the "slate", the slate was now being characterized as a starting point, and that some "horse trading" was fine.  

If you look at my previous post, you will see that the "slate" was not originally characterized as being a "starting point", but more of a done deal, from the office of Patrick Lawton:  


If he had originally hoped for discussion, perhaps it would have been more prudent to note this as a starting point for discussion, or at least put "proposed" in the subject.   

Fortunately the administration does seem to respond to public scrutiny at times, so we should be thankful that the community has some watchdogs like Sarah Freeman to help provide that scrutiny. Without her efforts the charter provision on the BZA liaison could very well have remained undiscovered, and the subsequent "horsetrading" would not have occurred.

The rest of the meeting had to do with the horsetrading. You can check the timeline above for more information on that, or view the video. 

As it turns out, Forrest Owens expressed discomfort with being a liaison to all three quasi judicial commissions, and after he gave up BZA back to Mary Anne Gibson, he also traded away being Design and Review board liaison to John Barzizza (Rocky Janda said "no" to Mr. Barzizza's request to trade Finance). Dean Massey thought it would be logical for him to take over as the liaison to Personnel, because he had experience in this area and it had been held by his predecessor (Mr. Klevan) in the past. The shift in this position from Mr. Klevan's alderman position to Rocky Janda was another example in which the experience of the board members and what aldermen had served on in the past did not seem to have been considered by the "slate." Rocky Janda agreed to trade the Personnel liaison position, although he then noted the value of vertical integration. The Personnel Commission is particularly important in light of issues raised in Commercial Appeal articles last summer, and noted in these past blog posts:  

Charter, Charter, What's in the Charter? And What is the City Administrator's Salary?  

Thank you Jane Roberts-Vacation Buybacks and Other Perks 

Then there is the issue of those pesky insurance policies that are still so costly to the city--  

Protecting Upper Level Germantown Employees Comes at High Cost to Taxpayers  

Shining a Light on Germantown wishes the very best to all our aldermen in their positions of responsibility.  As I reflect on the last year, I feel a lot of gratitude for the citizens who care enough to be informed about governance issues, and who read this blog. 

However, I am particulary grateful for the citizens who serve our community in official capacities. We all need to remember that governance often involves conflict, and that the citizens can be better informed when decisions are hashed out in public, even if that conflict can look "undignified" on the surface.  

The complete list of the aldermen liaison positions is read by Mayor Palazzolo at the end of the video, and the newly shuffled slate is passed unanimously.

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