Common Council needs to step up

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Right about now, people ought to be missing Jim Pitts.

Yeah, yeah, I know, obstructionist and all. I’ll concede, he could be frustrating at times.

But Pitts was nobody’s pushover, and during his time in office the Common Council could be counted on to take the occasional lead on issues and function as some sort of check on executive power. That’s in sharp contrast to the “go along to get along” crew now occupying the Council’s nine seats.

I did a package of stories last week for WGRZ that considered the effectiveness and independence of the Council and Erie County Legislature. My reports were based in part off studies done by Paul Wolf, an attorney who served as the Council’s chief of staff from 2004 to 2008. Wolf’s study on the Legislature can be found here,  the Council here.

Wolf’s studies, replete with lots of hard numbers, were not kind to lawmakers, especially county legislators, who have passed only one law in each of the past two years. They did, however, pass more than 600 resolutions last year that honored county residents and organizations, including 217 saluting the recently deceased. Wolf referred to the practice as “trolling for votes.”

The Council doesn’t bother with such resolutions, but busies itself with other minutia and fails to pass many laws of consequence.

For instance, Council members last year approved more waivers of fees so residents could hold block parties (80) than they introduced resolutions on city issues (77).

“They’re supposed to be legislators, they’re supposed to be establishing policy, and they really don’t,” Wolf said.

Like the County Legislature, the Council is mostly hands-off in reviewing budgets proposed by the executive branch. In recent years, county legislators and Council members have changed less than one percent of operating budgets submitted for review and approval. It’s been going on for years, as I noted back in 2008.

This is especially troubling when it comes to the city’s Community Development Block Grant program, which has been the source of critical federal audits since the Jimmy Griffin era. The latest, and it’s a doozy, involves the city spending anti-poverty funds to pay for high-priced lobbyists.

As Wolf tells it, about all Council members care about is their piece of the pie for projects in their districts.

“You didn’t have any debates about policy,” Wolf said. “The debate was ‘How much discretionary money am I getting?’”

This is among the reasons why I’m more troubled with the Council than the Legislature.

Yes, county lawmakers do less, and passing a law a year but hundreds of resolutions honoring the dead and living is as laughable as it is inexcusable. But the Legislature doesn’t have a lot of real responsibilities. Not when you consider that county government is, for the most part, a huge social service agency whose spending and policies are largely dictated by state mandates.

In reality, the purview of legislators doesn’t extend much beyond county parks, roads, libraries, and health clinics. Not that they aren’t important, they are, as we were reminded when Chris Collins took a hatchet to many of these non-mandated services when he was county executive. But they are a relatively thin slice of the county government pie.

The Council, on the other hand, has a lot more turf to cover, starting with police, fire and other municipal services. Economic development. Housing inspections. Anti-poverty programs. Community-based services. The list goes on and on.

What we need is a Council with initiative and independence. Right now, we have neither.

The Council has tackled issues here and there. The licensing of food trucks and the co-mingling of under-age drinkers with those of legal age on Chippewa Street are two examples.

But they are not to be mistaken for the larger issues confronting the city. Crime. Poverty. Education. And the Council is a no-show on these and other issues that matter the most. So is Mayor Byron Brown, and that’s the problem.

No one in elected leadership is taking on the tough issues. When the mayor fails to do so, the Council needs to step in, and has, to varying degrees, in the past.

Why isn’t that happening now?

I see two reasons.

First is the make up of the Council. While it’s always had its share of stiffs, the Council, dating to at least the late 1970s, always had a core of top-shelf lawmakers. People like Pitts, Eugene Fahey, David Rutecki, Brian Higgins, and Kevin Helfer. They initiated, they followed through, they governed—all independent of the mayor.

It’s a different story today. The Council’s core of excellence has atrophied. Back in the day, being a community organizer was a good stepping-stone into office. Now, being a bartender with a history of drunk driving arrests and a daddy with connections suffices. Seriously.

As the caliber of the Council has waned, so has its independence.

David Franczyk, the Council’s elder with 27 years on the job, said the body isn’t much more than a rubberstamp these days. It’s been that way since a bloc aligned with the mayor took power 2 1⁄2 years ago, he said.

“The mayor essentially controls the Council and dictates the budget, the agenda, and so what you do is tinker around the edges,” he said. “On independence, we’d very much get a failing grade.”

Suffice to say, Council President Darius Pridgen disagrees. He insists that members these days are more interested in finding solutions rather than fighting.

“You just haven’t seen the big huge brawls that you saw of yesteryear, and when the big brawls were there, all I heard…from the people was ‘Adults need to get it together,’” Pridgen said.

Wolf said there’s something to be said for a happy medium.

“Nobody wants dysfunctional government where there’s nonstop bickering and arguing. But some debate, some discussion, some disagreement is certainly a good thing, I think, in a democracy, and we don’t have it,” he said of the Council.

For more on the topic, listen to my interview earlier this week with Shredd & Ragan on 103.3, The Edge.