Analysis by Adam Aasen
This week, Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard and the newly elected City Council full of like-minded supporters took swift action at their first meeting of the year. They voted to change the rules so the city could remove a stop sign at 126th Street and Auman Drive — the target of much ire from some residents.
Less than 12 hours later, the stop sign was removed.
It’s symbolic in a way because this new alliance between the mayor and the newly elected council has meant no more stopping.
Those on the council would describe it as no more unnecessary traffic jams where legislation was backed up by unnecessary stops and slow-moving elected officials. Those who oppose the mayor would say the mayor/council’s new MO is to speed through new legislation at the expense of everyday citizens trying to exit their neighborhood.
OK, maybe it’s not a perfect analogy, but I thought it worked…
I guess I’m saying you better pay close to what’s going on in the city because things are moving quickly.
During the previous four years, Brainard often butted heads with four of the seven members of the city council, which led to some defeated bills and slowly moving legislation that sat in committee for months. Three of those councilors are no longer in office, having lost elections and the fourth — Carol Schleif of the Southwest district — seems to be agreeing with the mayor often nowadays. They are cooperating on issues such as improving roads for her part of town that was annexed years back.
So how are things moving faster? Well, the council changed the rules so ordinances can now be voted on after first reading with only a 2/3 vote of the council. Previously it had to be unanimous.
One example where this came into play was with the recently passed anti-discrimination ordinance.
Some proponents who were in favor of passage wanted the council to suspend the rules and vote on first reading. That would have required unanimous support and many councilors — such as Kevin “Woody” Rider and former councilor Luci Snyder — wanted more time to consider the matter and supported sending it to committee. When it got to committee, Snyder decided to keep it in committee instead of sending it back to council with a recommendation. Then-council president Rick Sharp tried to pull it out of committee, but he couldn’t get enough votes to do so (four councilors voted to keep it in committee so the new 2/3 rule wouldn’t have worked there). While the votes during that issue mean that a 2/3 vote might have changed matters, you could imagine that with today’s mayorally-friendly makeup of the council, it’s possible that one or two nay votes could slow down some mayor-friendly issues. This mechanism would prevent that.
Here’s the question that everyone has: When you speed legislation, does it cut down on transparency? Does it mean that things would be rushed through without debate or chance for public input?
Brainard and many of his councilors tell me no. Many readers have sent me very different opinions on that matter, but let me explain what the councilors tell me.
Council President Ron Carter said he describes the new system as “efficient” not “fast.” He said the previous council often wasted time arguing when there are ways to find a compromise and work together.
Former councilors such as Snyder said they were often excluded from discussion on mayor-friendly issues and lots of business was done behind closed doors. She said it was hard to move fast on an issue when you’re seeing it for the first time, and she felt she had a responsibility to the residents to carefully consider matters. Sharp often told me that he would rather take his time and “get it right” rather than just move fast.
Councilor Sue Finkam tells me that she believes there’s an effort for more transparency. Unfortunately, some people don’t take advantage of it. She said some people don’t attend committee meetings — which are open to the public — and she understands that so he would prefer that more business is done at council meetings instead of at committees, which aren’t recorded and posted online. She also noted that ordinances/agendas will be posted much earlier, giving the public the chance to look it over and schedule time to come and speak about the issue. She also noted that constituents can email, call, tweet or Facebook herself and others. She also sent out surveys to ask the public what they would like to see in Carmel.
And the faster system is already showing results. After four hours, the council’s finance committee meticulously debated and gave positive recommendations to all of the proposed bonds that were in committee as part of the mayor’s $242 million in infrastructure projects (only $217 million if you just include project cost and not fees associated with selling bonds. I use the larger number since that is what costs the taxpayers).
This includes bonds for new storm water infrastructure. Councilor Rider previously expressed concern that the city might be counting on future growth and a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to help make payments on debt for the storm water bonds and it gave him “heart burn” to be cutting it so close. He asked, what if another unexpected project comes up? He said he admits that city bond advisors tell him that the budget will be tight for the next 20 years with so many projects and that it’s important that Carmel continues to grow at its expected pace. That being said, that doesn’t negate Rider’s support for these projects. Finkam said many people, including herself, had questions about the storm water debt and it was reported that some of the money will go into the storm water account to act as a reserve for payments. This includes initial money already building up and expected future commercial development.
New ordinances will also have a quick summary at the beginning of a paperless packet to avoid people not understanding the legalese involved in writing laws. Some expressed concerns that these summaries could be subjectively written to sway passage, but councilors tell me that won’t be the case.
A proposal to limit the amount of time for comments from the public died at a December vote but the new council plans to vote on that in 2016 and will likely pass it.
In many circumstances, those in power now have more power. The mayor now controls the storm water utility through the Board of Public Works instead of the council. The mayor now controls arts funding. The city engineer — who reports to the mayor — now controls stop signs in Carmel. The Carmel Redevelopment Commission now doesn’t have to go to the City Council for approval for many contracts, when previously they had to for anything more than $25,000. The councilors in the majority on issues can now pass legislation with ease.
I asked Carter what would happen with a new mayor/council in four years? Could a shady leader abuse these rules of efficiency to force through bad legislation without oversight? Carter said the previous council abused the previous rules in his opinion, so that’s always a risk and that’s why people need to be careful when they vote.
What about those in the minority? What about dissenters? How will they be heard?
Finkam repeats that they can contact councilors in various ways and even grab them after meetings for extra face-to-face time.
So here’s what I’m telling our readers: Please contact the council if you have concerns. If they don’t listen to you, then please contact Current in Carmel. You can e-mail me at email@example.com. One big issue I’m already hearing from readers about is the proposal to eliminate the “opt-out” for city trash collection services. Carter told me that since it was tabled and not sent to committee, there could be action at the next council meeting on Jan. 18.
Phone: (317) 710-0162
Council Vice President
Phone: (317) 614-5835
Phone: (317) 408-9071
Phone: (317) 471-9836
Kevin “Woody” Rider -Vice President
Phone: (317) 503-7095