Tuesday, August 16, 2011

North Ogden City to Citizen Taxpayers: Shut Up and Pay Up!

North Ogden City leadership has been angling for a new public works facility for several years now. It seems, however, that anything they do in this vein ends up being unpopular enough to draw citizen ire. The current situation seems like another cycle in that pattern.

The current public works facility is getting rundown. The two-acre lot where it has sat for decades is too small for current and future needs. Much of the equipment is exposed to the elements year round. Due to covered space limitations, employees often work on equipment out in the weather throughout the year. I believe that most city residents agree that something needs to be done about the situation.

A couple of years ago the city named a site for a new public works facility on property already owned by the city. But it was hard against a residential area and far from the city's business/industry areas. Opposition to the site caused the city to eventually back down.

Then a few months ago it was announced that the city would locate the facility on another piece of property owned by the city. It seems that city leaders were unaware that the property had been sold to the city at a greatly reduced price by a local family under the premise that it would only be used as a public park. Some city leaders tried to push the city's case, noting that the city was not technically legally obligated to honor the 12-year-old agreement. In the end, the city backed down once again.

Some residents were unhappy about the process. It appeared to them that city leadership had deliberately worked out the details under the public radar in an effort to prevent public input.

Many citizens were surprised when city leaders recently voted to bond for $10 million to construct a new public works facility. Opponents have noted that adequate facilities for cities of a similar size have recently been built for less than $2 million. When city leaders got wind of opposition being raised to the bond effort, they pushed up the vote on the matter. It passed the city council 4-1.

However, the city did hold a public hearing on the matter after the fact. This hearing was attended by over 300 people, most of whom were opposed to the size of the bond. While governments throughout the U.S. are struggling to reduce debt and expenditures, it is as if North Ogden's leadership is thinking, "What an awesome time to increase debt and taxes!" (Disguising the taxes as utility payments does not alter their basic nature.)

City leaders became aware at the meeting that some residents had started a petition drive to get the bond measure put on November's ballot. Last Friday, sponsoring citizens presented the petition to the city. It had about 3,000 signatures, which represents one-sixth of all residents and about a third of registered voters. I should note that two of the petition drive sponsors have filed to run for city council this fall. Yesterday the city filed a lawsuit against the petitioners specifically naming the two sponsoring city council candidates as defendants.

The city attorney says that the city finds at least 10 legal defects with the petition and the petition process (see Standard.net article). Of the statute about public petitions the attorney says, "The law is quite technical." That's code for saying that the law is designed to prevent citizen input. The lawyer basically says that the citizens have no recourse at this point and that the city can move ahead with the bond even if a significant number of citizens are opposed to it.

One of the candidate defendants in the lawsuit makes it clear that this is not about technicalities surrounding the petition. It is about city leaders paying attention to the citizens they supposedly represent.

I have stayed somewhat aloof from all of the wrangling surrounding the public works facility. I did not sign the petition, nor have I offered support to any candidate for a city leadership position. The U.S., its states, and local governments operate under a republican form of government. The Founders intended this to prevent or at least ameliorate the worst government abuses.

The founders recognized the folly in democratic forms of government, which tend to lead to tyranny of the majority. In general, it seems to me that creating public policy by popular vote of the citizenry tends to produce far worse policy than political deal making among elected politicians.

But I also believe that citizens have a right to petition their government for redress of grievances. They have a right to be heard by those elected to represent them. In a republic, elected officials are the servants of the people, not vice versa.

In this particular case, the petitioners are simply asking that those that will have to pay increased taxes for the $10 million bond be allowed to vote up or down on the matter. The petitioners are in no way assured of what the outcome of such a vote would be. They just want the taxpayers to have a more direct say in the matter.

Any lawyer worth his salt should be able to find technical fault with any public petition. That's really not the issue here. The issue is whether one-third of the city's voters should be ignored. Any city leader that demonstrates such an attitude deserves to be booted out of office.

Frankly, the city's actions smack of abuse of power. Whether the elected officials and city employees involved see it this way or not, they should recognize how it looks to the public at large.

Three city council seats are up for election this fall. The primary is less than a month away. It will be interesting to see how the incumbents fare. They have just handed a motivated opposition an issue that will be fire in the belly for the opposition's supporters. They have elevated two challenging candidates to celebrity status.

I note that four years ago when the city held a primary election for these same three council seats, only 918 voters bothered to show up. If the petition sponsors can leverage a goodly portion of the 3,000 voters that signed the petition, they should have no problem ousting the incumbent council members.

Since city leaders are treating the petitioners like their opinions are unimportant, the best avenue left to them is at the ballot box. Ousting council incumbents would send a strong message to the remaining city leadership. It may be the only message they can understand at this point.

I may be miscalculating the level of ire among voters. In fact, the most likely scenario would be for the primary election to draw only marginally more voters than did the primary election of four years ago. It is also likely that the broad field of challengers will dilute the opposition vote enough to allow the incumbents to prevail. Much will come down to how well the challengers leverage this situation to their benefit.

Despite the fact that I count two of the incumbent council members as personal friends, I have to say that I would like to see all three incumbents lose in the primary election. It seems to me that our city leadership needs to be taught a lesson that cannot be ignored.


Anonymous said...

It seems that you have done an excellent job in summarizing what has happened and where we are now. I would like to add one additional observation that could help explain why some residents are so upset. This issue seems to be a repeat of how the funding for the swimming pool was obtained only on a larger scale. I remember that over 70% of the residents voted against a $3.5 million bond for that. However the leadership at that time which included the current mayor as a councilperson found a way to bond using RDA funds. Understand that the RDA was a 20 year bond now being paid for by the incremental tax revenue from our commercial district in the RDA. That also was a tax levied upon us without our vote. Some of us are not happy that the leadership of this city continues to obligate the taxpayers whether we want it or not. I have attended more than one of the council meetings where budgets were discussed and voted upon. I was concerned this last year when the budget was balanced by dividing one administrator salary over five departments and then consuming our reserves to the lowest level allowed by state law. This was after cutting employee benefits and lowering some salaries. This next year that will not be an option and we are going to have a larger mess. The timing of this indebtedness could not come at a worse time. In dire economic times like this we should be making due with a little less for a while longer. Many of us that have seen our salaries lowered, benefits decreased and seen co-workers terminated are concerned when we look around and moving to another job is very difficult and are feeling like a reality check is needed. It is obvious by the attendance at the hearings and number of signatures gathered in such a short time that people want to be heard and proceed with caution on something so significant. I do not see why this should be pushed so quickly. It is obvious that the Mayor does not want a vote on this issue because I suspect he does not want to have the results appear in the press for all to see.

Anonymous said...

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
Martin Luther King, Jr.