Endless struggle: Another go ‘round in City Politics

. February 2, 2021.

It’s the change we need, and the change we’ll never get.

Every four years there’s another round of the dance. And in the end, after debate and fulminations, it falls to naught, and we plod on as before.

Civics 101
First, some background. Toledo government is conceived, via City Charter, as the usual tripartite system you learned about in junior high. Legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Co-equal branches providing checks and balances on each other.

And in theory, those checks and balances are what prevent any one branch from gaining too much power. The legislative branch, meaning City Council, passes legislation via ordinances. But the executive branch, via the Mayor, has the power of the veto, raising the bar for passing legislation and controlling any cockamamie impulses a simple majority of Council members might have.

The executive branch, under the Mayor, runs the daily operations of the city, but the legislative branch, City Council, controls the budget and appropriations.  Which, in theory, reins in the Mayor and helps control sometimes spendthrift ideas and policies.  In theory, the executive branch can only perform those duties ratified by a vote of City Council.

In practice, the theory of checks and balances is hogwash. You see, the Mayor, and the thousands of various Directors, Commissioners, Managers, and other employees all the way deep down in the City hierarchy, are all full timers. For the vast majority, this is their career. Many have been working in the same job for decades, and they know that job inside and out.

As currently constructed, on the other hand, members of Council are part timers. They get paid a mere twenty seven five per annum. And they are term limited. They come and go. Learning the ins and out of a complex, bloated bureaucracy takes years. By the time council members get the hang of it, they’re gone.

This puts Council at a serious disadvantage as a check on the executive branch. Instead of being coequal and independent, they are largely dependent on whatever information the Mayor and his underlings decide to throw their way. And that reality results in the Mayor being largely in control, without checks, without balances 

Think this is overstated? Witness the recent budget passage. Controlling the budget is one of the major powers the Charter gives Council to control and balance the Mayor.  It’s so important the budget needn’t be passed until March thirty first each year, to provide time for study and discourse concerning the spending of the City’s funds.

This year, in the depths of the COVID-19 recession, the March 31 deadline means Council had a few months to see how the economy recovers and make adjustments accordingly before passing the budget. Instead they rolled over and gave Wade what he wanted, in mid-January.

You get what you pay for
What can be done?

First and foremost, Council positions should also be full time. Members should be paid enough that they can put in forty solid per week to collect independent information and to serve as a true countervailing force; a check on the Mayor.

Which brings us to the quadrennial dance. Council salaries are determined by ordinance. Every four years, the City Charter mandates that a group of citizens be appointed to study the salaries of Council and the Mayor and then to recommend changes. Council can then make the recommended changes through legislation. Or not.

This is the year for the salary review. Perhaps the citizens’ group will recommend a raise to demand full time hours from Council members. Where it would be expected that members would not have other full time employment. Where a more diverse, younger, non-retirement age group of candidates could be attracted to run for office. And then, perhaps, Council will pass the recommended raise.

Fuggettaboutit. History, however, demonstrates that, likely, nothing will come of it. Citizens will be appointed, gather, and learn how grossly underpaid Toledo Council members are compared to all other cities in Ohio nary a raise in salary in nearly two decades. 

They will likely recommend a raise, like they did four years ago, and eight years ago. However this is an election year. Council members fear a backlash at the ballot box.

So eight years ago, the citizens’ recommendation was never brought to a vote by Council. Four years ago the citizens recommended a raise to over forty grand.  Council voted it down.

Leaving a Council composed predominantly of retirees and others working part time, at the mercy of the executive branch, and starved for relevant information.

If any of this changes this year, we’ll be shocked and awed.

Thanks, Phil
On a more reverential note, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note the passing of long-time public servant Phil Copeland. Rest well, Phil, and accept our gratitude for a life of service.