Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Two councilors pushing for veto powers for mayor

The Oshkosh Northwestern is reporting that Oshkosh Common Council members Paul Esslinger and Dennis McHugh are planning to sponsor a resolution that will be on next week’s Common Council agenda, in which the council will be asked to approve and place on the fall ballot a referendum seeking approval from Oshkosh voters for a mayor with veto power. The story says that the two are proposing an elected mayor as we have now, but who would have veto power that could only be overruled by a vote of five-sevenths (the resolution actually reads two-thirds but it equates to the same thing) of the council.

There are already some concerns about this proposed resolution. My co-host Tony Palmeri has blogged about his concern that under the way this is being structured, a mayor could have multiple votes on any contentious issue. Common Councilor Bryan Bain has expressed the same concern and posed some additional questions on his own blog. While I share those same questions and concerns, I also wonder what councilors Esslinger and McHugh are hoping this will ultimately accomplish, particularly if many things remain the same with the council composition.

After all, they frequently are on the losing side of votes, often outvoted 5-2 or 6-1. It is doubtful there would be many vetoes if the council’s power structure remains as it is. If it shifts, however, and someone of the Esslinger/McHugh mindset is elected mayor, given the way the votes often come down on the council dais, it is easy to see a five-sevenths (two-thirds) override vote to a mayoral veto.

I also have to wonder why Dennis McHugh is behind such a movement. When Citizens for Responsible Government attempted a similar referendum two years ago, McHugh's attitude toward the effort was less than overwhelming; in fact, it was lackluster at best. Why the big change in his attitude now?

Some are questioning the timing of this resolution, with the bills for garbage and recycling out not even a week yet. Are they trying to further stir an already "angry mob," some are wondering. Some have also suggested to me that this is another pre-cursor to Esslinger seeking the position of mayor in 2007. That is certainly a possibility, but based on the things I’ve heard from people I don’t think such a referendum would pass AND Esslinger be elected mayor. At best it would be one or the other.

Those two things aside, I think we need to have answers to some of the more significant outstanding questions about this proposal, and we will get those answers and have several weeks of discussion should this resolution pass next week. But if history is an indication of how things will go, I don't see it as passing either.

I agree that we need a strong mayor in this city and one with veto power could be better than what we have right now, provided it’s done right. These councilors should be given credit for trying to bring about a change. But the absolute best situation we could have is a full-time elected mayor who is truly answerable and accountable to the voters.

I have nothing against Richard Wollangk as a human being, but I don’t think as a city manager who is hired by the Common Council, he exercises enough control over his staff, nor do I believe he holds them, nor himself, accountable for their actions. By the same token the council doesn't seem to really hold anyone at City Hall accountable either.

We hear about how professional management is good for the community. Yet, let’s look at what this professional management has gotten us in the couple of years, even the last few months:

  • The city was rushed by a million-dollar “gift” from the Leach family to construct an amphitheater bearing their name, complete with all kinds of ancillary projects that cost the taxpayers millions, yet we had no say in the matter;
  • A construction job was awarded at the Leach, though the bid process was waived by the Common Council;
  • Two years of city staff work was flushed down the drain on the Five Rivers pipedream. But our city manager was rarely front and center about this project in the press, and on various occasions actually told the press he didn’t know what was happening with it;
  • Due to a city attorney’s error in drafting the contract with PMI for management of the Leach Amphitheater, we are stuck with PMI for a year longer than we first thought, even though the manner in which they are promoting events (or not) and running things remains a hotbed of discussion and discontent. The Common Council should have read the contract they were approving however and must assume some responsibility;
  • Questions arose over the legal notice for the smoking ban referendum two years or so ago. The city eventually ended up in court, though the city clerk's office admitted and assumed full responsibility for the error.
  • A vote on a new nuisance ordinance had to be delayed after it was discovered that key language had been accidentally deleted from the revised ordinance presented to council members. This was likely a mistake on the part of our city attorney's office.
  • Land was recently approved for sale to a developer for $10,000 less than what the city manager told the council he believed it was being sold for. He also claimed the city assessor felt the selling price was in line with the going rate, but it clearly was 40-cents a square foot less than the city assessor’s records show property in that area selling for. The city manager also failed to tell the council that the money the city did get from the land sale would be going right back into remediation.
  • Residents have to purchase a permit for small inflatable plastic-type swimming pools so their toddlers can keep cool on those hot, balmy Wisconsin summer days;
  • Residents now have to pay to have certain items like furniture and appliances hauled away by the city. We also have to pay a fee to drop off brush at the city garage on Witzel Avenue. If that weren’t bad enough, new fees for garbage collection are instituted for the final quarter of 2006 and the city manager says services will be cut in 2007 if the fee is not continued. Meanwhile other fees are being suggested for such things as backyard fire pits.
  • Contract negotiations are approaching and it has yet to be seen how tough the city will be with Mr. Wollangk at the helm.

I’m sure I’ve missed some along the way but this is a pretty solid list of reasons why we need someone in a position where accountability to the people footing the bills takes precedence over loyalty to one’s staff. If we are going to make changes within the mayoral structure of the city, let’s make the mayoral position one of a full-time elected status. If we’re not going to do that, then let’s at least make the mayoral position non-voting unless s/he is breaking a tie or vetoing something.

- Cheryl

P.S. You can read the proposed resolution by going here.


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