Any opposed? Not too likely in Columbus

This artile is By Robert Vitale of The Columbus Dispatch  • Published Sunday September 12, 2010 6:39 AM

Since 2007, the City Council has made 5,823 decisions, all but 15 unanimous

The Columbus City Council reconvenes Monday after a six-week summer hiatus that has left its chambers void of rigorous debate and clashing opinions.

In other words, it has been business as usual on the second floor of City Hall.

Council members have cast a combined 37,742 votes on policy changes, spending proposals, procedural motions and other matters since January 2007, the earliest date that a majority of the current roster has been in office.

Just 20 of those votes – one-twentieth of 1 percent – have been cast in dissent.

As a group, those votes have added up to 5,823 decisions during that same 44-month span. All but 15 have been unanimous.

Such single-mindedness and unity of purpose are sometimes the sign of a highly functioning organization, said Cliff Kayser, a management consultant based in Washington, D.C., who has worked with NASA, the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

Sometimes, he said, it’s a sign of the exact opposite.

“Over-emphasis on consensus to the neglect of debate is group-think,” Kayser said. “There’s a lack of creativity and innovation.”

Council members, who unanimously back a Nov. 2 ballot measure that would give them the power to discuss certain issues behind closed doors, said much of the work revising legislation takes place before public votes on Monday nights. But that’s part of the legislative process, they said, not an end-run around laws requiring them to conduct debate in full public view.

“This is not closed-door, smoke-filled-room deal-cutting,” said Councilman Andrew J. Ginther. “This is government.”

The Dispatch looked at the official record from 127 meetings conducted since Jan. 22, 2007, the day Council President Michael C. Mentel was elevated to the top leadership post. That vote was among the 5,808 unanimous decisions recorded.

Also approved without dissent: laying off 140 workers and shutting down 11 recreation centers as part of last year’s budget, draining the city’s rainy-day fund to avoid even deeper cuts, doubling the number of red-light cameras to watch drivers at Columbus intersections, placing an income-tax increase on the special-election ballot in 2009, and putting the closed-meeting amendment before voters this fall.

Not all decisions have been so significant, but 2,183 unanimous votes waived council rules that require at least a week between introduction and the final vote. Another 244 votes authorized no-bid contracts totaling nearly $100 million, not counting the four annual contracts that paid the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio nearly $60 million to dispose of trash.

Many of the unanimous votes also came on purely routine matters, including approving previous meetings’ minutes, honoring people of note, taking a short recess and adjourning for the night.

Much of what any government does is routine, uncontroversial and required by law, said Alex Heckman, who was recently hired by Franklin University to head a public-administration graduate program that will begin next fall.

“But on the spectrum, they might be some of the most agreeable folks,” he said of Columbus council members.

 

Heckman, a former school-board member in Westerville, said local governments often place great emphasis on presenting a united front to their constituents. And as part-time public officials, he said, council members rely on the same full-time bureaucracy for the information that guides their decisions.

In addition, all seven members of the Columbus City Council are Democrats, and five have been appointed since Mentel became president. Mayor Michael B. Coleman is a Democrat as well.

Councilwoman Charleta B. Tavares has dissented just nine times since January 2007, but her council-floor questioning of city officials has earned her a reputation as a maverick.

She doesn’t think consensus is bad, but neither is dissent, she said.

“Some people believe nothing should come to the table unless there’s unanimity. I’m not of that opinion,” Tavares said. “I think it’s healthy when people share their concerns.”

Council critics said the overwhelming number of unanimous decisions means voter approval of the closed-meeting amendment would legalize a practice already in place.

Council members said that’s not the case. They hold public hearings. They’re briefed by administration officials and voice their concerns individually. Staff members meet weekly and talk regularly.

“By the time we get to the floor, a lot of things have pretty much been worked out,” said Councilwoman Priscilla R. Tyson.

James Moore, whose Keep Council Open group is fighting the proposed charter change, said that leaves very little time for public debate.

“I’m not an agent of chaos,” he said. “But dissent is part of the process. Dissent allows for dialogue, for people to have their ideas heard. The whole American process is based on dissent.”

Matt Ferris, a Republican also-ran in last year’s election who plans to seek a council seat again in 2011, rejected the idea that council votes are overwhelmingly unanimous because council business is overwhelmingly routine.

“It’s $50,000 here, $150,000 here – all these ‘little’ things add up to tens of millions of dollars,” he said.

Mentel and Councilman Hearcel F. Craig, the second-ranking leader, issued a joint written statement defending the legislative process as “inclusive, open and transparent.” Through spokesman John Ivanic, they declined to be interviewed.

“City Council does not set a quota for ‘no’ votes,” the statement said. “Each council member votes his or her conscience, keeping in mind what is best for all citizens of Columbus.”

A. Troy Miller has cast 2,171 votes since his appointment in January 2009. He has yet to vote against the majority.

He said that doesn’t mean he has never disagreed with anyone.

“Things happen sometimes … behind that door,” he said. “It’s amazing how much discussion goes on behind the scenes.”

rvitale@dispatch.com