A Modest Proposal: regarding Council oversight of hot-button City committees

(6th in a series of modest proposals)

So Gadfly went to the Bethlehem Parking Authority meeting last Wednesday April 24. Perhaps more on the substance of that meeting later.

The meeting was at 4PM. Gadfly recently reported that at a Planning Commission meeting both Diane Szabo Backus and Paige Van Wirt made what we might call “vigorous proposals” [ha! not modest!] for later meeting times to accommodate the large number of citizens who work at that hour and are unable to attend such meetings. And Gadfly was later able to report that the Mayor heard those vigorous proposals and has pledged to require later times across the board in City committees for 2020.

A solid blow for citizen participation. Another shout-out to Backus-Van Wirt-Donchez.

There are many City Authorities, Boards, and Commissions. Take a look. Made up almost entirely of resident volunteers. Gadfly doesn’t know exactly, but he guesses the volunteers probably number in the vicinity of 125. A small army.

That’s a lot of people the Mayor has to round up. I mean, I’m not sure that people are thronging the Mayor during “Open Door” days and clamoring for such positions. He no doubt has to recruit. Though I hope we never see the day when he has to set up a card table in a mall and hawk for warm bodies.

Gadfly goes to a lot of these meetings. And can say without hesitation that there are a lot of wonderful people doing wonderful work. Good for the Mayor, good for the great people volunteering.

The Mayor nominates resident members, Council approves. Most of the time the approvals are pro forma. But there was one significant denial recently, probably for conflict of interest, a person serving on two closely related bodies.

Approvals should not be pro forma, especially for certain committees, and the Parking Authority is one such group. The Parking Authority was a center of controversy in the latter half of 2018 as 70+ posts in the Gadfly parking thread will attest (see the link on the sidebar).

Gadfly could not tell and had suspicions about the range and quality of Board member involvement. The New St. Garage, the Polk Garage, the Desman Parking Study, the conflict with Council, etc., etc. — strangely to Gadfly, it’s almost impossible to tell from the Board minutes that these things were going on much less that there were “hot” public “issues” about them. The Authority then had a powerful, involved solicitor and a long-standing Chair — Gadfly wondered if there was any debate or discussion at all, wondered what the role, if any, of the appointed members was.

For we must depend on the Board members to be our “voice” in Authority decisions. Gadfly would like to make sure that they are.

Reviewing minutes, Gadfly saw no evidence of conflict, dissent, alternative opinion; Gadfly is not sure that he saw a motion that truly originated with a Board member or new business that originated with a Board member. And if it were not for routine responses to “asks” by the chair for a motion and a second, you might not even know who is on the Board. Attendance at a few meetings suggested that the Authority authority resided in the Executive Director, the solicitor, and the Board chair.

Which is not to say that hot issues weren’t ever aired and that all Board members were not heavily involved. But the minutes — basically the only official public record of what transpired — don’t reveal much in that respect.

When those Board members come up for re-appointment, on what basis will Council make its oversight decision? Evidence of the quantity and quality of their participation and contributions in deliberations about non-trivial and non-routine matters — as attested to in the minutes — should be a prime body of evidence.

At the April 24 meeting, Gadfly suggested to the Parking Authority Board that the minutes be improved to at least capture the flavor of all viewpoints in discussion, that votes that are not unanimous clearly indicate who the yays and nays are, and he suggested to the members that they be sure not only that they contribute but that their contributions are detailed in the minutes. If they want to be re-appointed, that is.

You can hear Gadfly talk about this as an aspect of his “passion for public participation in city matters” (soooo pompous is your Gadfly!) here:

My modest proposal is that Council let the Mayor know that proposals for re-appointment of members of “hot” committees, commissions, and boards should include — in addition to resumes*** — specific and substantive evidence of the quality and quantity of member contributions as attested in the minutes.

At the last City Council meeting Backus made the interesting point that since such Board members are appointed by elected officials, they too are in a sense elected. And the public needs accountability, especially on the “hot” committees, and will call for it from Council when re-appointment time comes around.

*** Instructive here is the good dialogue about oversight initiated by Councilwoman Van Wirt and joined by Council President Waldron and Business Manager Evans sitting in for the Mayor at the January 15 Council meeting and recorded in the minutes on pp 11-12. But for re-appointments, Gadfly is suggesting more than resumes and contact info. There should be evidence of performance.

 

 

Addendum to “dressing up the address”

(5th in a series of modest proposals)

Regarding Gadly’s last modest proposal:

So probably at 8AM this very moment I just  punched the “Send” button and perhaps the very moment you might be reading this, the Mayor is beginning his “State of the City” address to the Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast at Arts Quest.

Gadfly suggested a different venue and etc., etc. for this annual event.

As usual Gadfly enters these modest proposals on the record during public comment at Council meetings — and did so Tuesday night. It so happens the mayor was not there.

CM Reynolds took up the idea and suggested to Business manager Evans who was sitting in for the Mayor that this talk could be given during the Mayor’s report time at Council meetings.

Yes, it could.

But a couple things that CM Reynolds said struck me as not so good.

CM Reynolds said — paraphrasing now — 1) the talk is basically a bunch of slides and 2) it wouldn’t take too much time and require a different preparation. I hope I have that right.

Now that didn’t strike me quite right.

It made the “State of the City” event sound perfunctory to me.

I said last time that I’m not a big spectacle kind of guy (another wink-wink to you-know-who-you-are). And I rather dislike the wind-demon politicians who are always talking or who are all-talk. Especially if they are also no-action.

But I must admit that there are times that I want, that I need some rah-rah.

And an event called “State of the City” feels that way to me.

Respectfully, one time a year I’d like to have the Mayor throw away the slides and the stop-watch and light us up a bit.

“it’s time to rethink how to share the news”

Although she’s lived in Bethlehem for almost 20 years, Carol Burns’ new career as a freelance marketer is giving her an opportunity to “discover” her hometown. She volunteers for several arts-related organizations, and her newest adventure is dipping her toe into local politics and community organizations.

Thanks Gadfly — agree 100%! I came across last year’s [the Mayor’s “State of the City] address (by accident/happenstance) on the city website, and I was stunned to learn all the news he shared (I see as I’m typing this that you also have it linked on your blog :).

I’m guessing the venue/audience was changed to the Chamber in response to low interest/low attendance, but I agree it’s time to rethink how to share the news. Can we think, “get a better quality video” and make available to view, maybe at the Library — or “get a decent audio” and make it a podcast (hey, the Library has a new set-up for making podcasts). Either/both could be available on the city’s website and social (in fact, all the city departments’ different social accounts should push it out, for better distribution). And — radical thought — include a QR code to link to audio/video with a short article in the next (boring/boring-looking) city newsletter.

Carol

 

“one heck of an expensive breakfast!”

Gadfly:

Here is a thought about this event [the Mayor’s “State of the City” address]. Why not do it in Town Hall where it can be live-streamed? Then it can be watched live and stored on the City’s website with a link for anyone who wants to view it. And, for FREE!

How many City officials will attend, pay their $49 or $99, whatever the cost, and then submit it to the City for reimbursement? That is just plain wrong that Bethlehem taxpayers should be on the hook for any costs associated with a speech to which they should have unfettered access. And, at $49 (which is the cost several people have quoted to me who won’t be attending), that’s one heck of an expensive breakfast!

We go to the Hotel Bethlehem’s Sunday brunch several times a year, and you’ll get a far better selection of food at much less the cost.

Dana

$49 if you are a Chamber member, $99 if you are a “Future Member.” Curious, see below, I just noticed the wording. It’s as if the general public is NOT invited. Even at $99, Gadfly would have to pretend he was joining the Chamber.
——————-

Chamber

 

A modest proposal: dressing up the Address

(4th in a series of modest proposals)

Gadfly is a shy guy, doesn’t like spectacle (wink, wink, to you-know-who-you-are), spent his academic life with the American Puritans and Pilgrims (“plain people”), distrusts politicians who live to talk (Stephen Crane called them “wind demons”), but, curiously, he wishes he heard more from Mayor Donchez.

Gadfly means no disrespect, but the Mayor does not speak much at “Mayor report” time during Council meetings, and I remember thinking it took me a while to recognize his Donchezvoice. From the Gadfly observation post in the cheap seats, the Mayor looks like a man who doesn’t waste words. And that is good, very good.

But, still, Gadfly wishes he heard more from the Mayor. At least, at times.

The “State of the City” address is coming up: this Thursday, March 7, 7:30AM, Arts Quest.

Gadfly was not Gadfly last year at this time, and he remembers that the address was over before he heard about it. And that didn’t seem right.

It seemed to me that there really wasn’t a lot of coverage by the media. I even had to dig down a layer or two on the City web site to find the text (it was subsequently moved to the Quick Links on the top page). The accompanying video is poorish quality (and mostly slides), seemingly recorded from within the audience at a distance. The Morning Call had a one-minute interview with the Mayor that felt rushed and competing with collateral noise. To me, the Mayor understandably looked kind of uncomfortable in that squeezed situation.

Just didn’t seem good. Not first-class. There was lots good and positive in the address itself, but, to me, the medium seemed to diminish it. Here was the highlight speech of the year, and it did not seem – to Gadfly – to have the highlighting it deserved. And the Mayor deserved.

Gadfly feels that this is the occasion for the Mayor to strut his stuff proudly in a more widely distributed and visible way.

For the “State of the City” address is hosted by and delivered to the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce: “The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce is comprised of approximately 750 Bethlehem based businesses that are members of The Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.”

Mayor State of City

Now Gadfly realizes how important business and businesspeople are to the quality of life in a city. But he is by nature and nurture a populist.

And asks.

Why is the “State of the City” addressed – or addressed only – to businesspeople?

Why not to “the people”?

As writing teacher, Gadfly used to stress that job #1 was to consider your audience. Who is your audience? Whom are you writing for? Different audiences demand different content and different delivery.

This Chamber event costs $99 to attend. Gadfly would like to attend. Nothing like being there. But that’s too much. And too much for the majority of “the people.”

And Gadfly wonders how differently tailored the address would (have to) be to an audience of “the people.”

The “State of the City” address might well (need to) be different delivered to businesspeople at Arts Quest over breakfast than to Southsiders on bleachers and folding chairs in Donegan School at dinner time.

Symbolism is meaningful.

So Gadfly’s latest modest proposal is to find ways to better engage the general public in the “State of the City” address and to think how to significantly improve the means of transmission and distribution.

A modest proposal: an even merrier more

(3rd in a series of modest proposals)

It’s the new year. And it’s an election year. A time to be proposing things.

The Gadfly project is all about participation of, interaction with, and communication to the public.

(It’s a bit distant but mark your calendars for the March 26 launch of the City Communication Survey led by CM Reynolds. 3:30 Town Hall. Gadfly will remind you.)

In his previous modest proposal Gadfly asked us to think about City Council meetings in terms of two metaphors.

The City Council meeting is the public face of City government and should be the hub of the wheel of City governance.

And he suggested that Council invite certain Authorities and Boards and so forth to “visit” the meeting twice a year to talk with/to Council and the public.

This next proposal is similar.

Gadfly didn’t always understand the finances at the series of budget meetings at the end of last year, but he very much appreciated “meeting” the department heads, who were pretty much unknown to him beforehand, and hearing them talk expertly about what they were doing or planning to do in their areas.

Now that was interesting and enlightening. And humanizing.

Could these department heads be brought in to enliven the Council meetings with discussion of real work affecting residents in process or planned?

The City organization chart shows 7 departments under the Mayor. (There’s a link to the chart on the Gadfly sidebar.)

Gadfly would imagine that in conjunction with formulating a budget each department has a set of goals – an annual plan of some sort – for the year that is the subject of periodic review with the Mayor and is the point of reference for the department’s performance evaluation.

Similar to the previous modest proposal, Gadfly is suggesting that each department head come to a meeting twice a year, once in the first half and once in the second, and briefly tell “us” what’s happening in that department. Highlights.

Our Council meetings are “live” and on video now. We could announce a schedule of such guest appearances – “coming attractions” — and promote them in a modest way. People with interest in certain areas could be alerted to attend or tune in or catch up later.

Gadfly likes to say that he hungers for information. He wants to know as much as possible about what is going on in his town.

Newsletters and other mechanisms and tools to push out information to the public that will come out of the Communication Survey are good things.

But Gadfly modestly proposes modest personal interaction that would spice up the necessary and important business and busy-ness of necessary Council routine.

And give the public a reason to be involved.

(“Modest Proposals.” Things – even really small things – that we’d like to see happen. Gadfly invites you to contribute your modest proposals. If you favor a modest proposal, let the Mayor and Council know – email links are on the Gadfly sidebar.)

A modest proposal: the more the merrier

(2nd in a series of modest proposals)

Gadfly has been reading back through distant past meeting minutes and newspaper archives and has noted in passing that there seemed to be a time when, for instance, the executive director of the Bethlehem Parking Authority attended Council meetings.

Gadfly’s not sure if that was on a regular basis or just special occasions.

But it struck him that some such attendance and reporting would be a good idea.

And not just the Parking Authority but all the “independent” authorities: Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority, Bethlehem Authority. Maybe even the Environmental Advisory Council and Backyards for Wildlife that are identified under “Authorities and Boards” on the City web site. Maybe even important players like BRIA.

As the unofficial official representative of the public, Gadfly hungers for information.

Maybe Council needs information too. Council members might receive minutes from meetings of these groups, and that is good if so. But some personal contact would be better. There is a Council liaison to the Parking Authority (there may be liaisons to other Authorities, not sure), for instance, but he has not attended a meeting as far back as the publicly available minutes December 2017, though he has said he keeps in phone contact with the Board chair. A couple months ago there was some question about an action by the Redevelopment Authority when “no one” from Council was there.

The City Council meeting is “our” only regular, centralized, top-level meeting. It is the public face of city government.

Gadfly wonders if the City Council meeting could be thought of (to change the metaphor)bicycle wheel as the hub of the wheel of City governance – the one place at which if a resident paid regular attention (now via tv!), he or she could have a reasonable understanding of what’s happening along the various spokes.

Hence, a modest proposal:

that the half-dozen or so “independent” Authorities be requested to attend at least two City Council meetings per year, once in the first six months and once in the second, to report on current activities and future plans and to receive comments and questions from both Council members and the general public.

(As the new year begins, Gadfly has been thinking of adding some new occasional yet regular features, such as this one called “Modest Proposals.” Things – even really small things – that we’d like to see happen. Gadfly invites you to contribute your modest proposals.)