Opponents of this opinion would say that’s the way city government was designed. Our elected officials are volunteers who generally have full-time jobs. In some cases, they have young families that require quite a bit of their attention. Council members rely upon professional staff to take the time to delve deeper into issues than they are able to do themselves. The city pays the staff to provide guidance on some issues, especially the ones they don’t have time to thoroughly research.
I’m sure this is very helpful in some, maybe most instances. Anyone who’s read a city council agenda has seen each item has some indication of what the staff recommends. Some recommendations are written on the agenda. Other items have a staff report attached within which the staff recommendation is clearly displayed.
Staff reports usually weigh the pros and cons of an issue in a way that appears unbiased and fair. Recommendations are usually explained briefly after the major issues have been weighed and discussed.
We can’t know how much each council member relies upon staff recommendations. I suspect they would deny any claim that the staff exerts undue influence on their decisions. I beg to differ.
More often than not, the information provided by the staff makes up 100% or nearly 100% of the information that’s entered into the public record on a particular issue, other than council discussion. In addition, council decisions follow staff recommendations something like 96% of the time.
I’m not suggesting there’s anything inappropriate about that. Maybe the staff gets it right 96% of the time. Just don’t try to tell me the staff doesn’t wield major influence over the direction our elected officials lead this city. I have evidence to the contrary.
I do think there are times when staff recommendations are not appropriate and may call into question the reasons why staff attempts to move the council toward or away from a particular decision.
Case in point, the staff recommendation on the award of a contract for development of the 15 acres that’s available in the center of the pier/marina complex. The staff has issued a recommendation the way they always do. I have no opinion one way or the other about who gets the contract. In fact, I trust the council will make the decision that’s best for the city. But if there was ever a time when the council should exert some leadership over the staff, it’s now.
Unlike something like waste disposal or pollution standards, there’s no reason to believe city staff would have more access to relevant information than members of the council. There’s also no reason to believe the council won’t invest all the time and effort necessary to make the best decision.
The major risk I see with following the status quo of staff leadership on this issue is the possibility that a losing bidder some other commercial interest or the public would question the basis for the staff’s recommendation. There’s potentially $100,000,000 at stake. That’s more than enough to make people ask questions.
One question that could get asked is whether anyone on the city staff, their relatives or associates has any prior relationship with the bidding companies or anyone connected to those companies. They might also want to know exactly what contact each staff member has had with the bidders and their representatives. It would also be fair to ask whether there are any financial relationships, even something as seemingly insubstantial as a pension invested in one of the companies, its parent company or some subsidiary. If I lost a $100 million bid I’d certainly be asking these questions and more.
Of course, council members should be held to the same scrutiny. But staff recommendations are a single source with a verifiably powerful influence on council decisions. I’d like to see the council tell city staff, “We’ve got this one.” and instruct the staff not to provide recommendations. That would bolster the confidence among everyone involved that the contract award is a council decision based on what’s right for the city.