Playing the Council Grinch
First year in office proves challenging
By: Liz Allen
Who knew that rummaging through a junk drawer would open up a cache of memories about the high and low points of 2018, including my first year on Erie City Council?
I was searching for instructions for an old snow blower when I ran across a Grinch parody I wrote a long time ago.
I like filing things and being organized, so finding the snow-blower manual where I stashed it years ago made me happy. My discovery also reminded me about how tickled we were when my husband won a new Ariens snow blower from the Erie SeaWolves on Labor Day. I had promised a nun friend that I would give her the old snow blower; now I could make sure she knows how to operate it, too.
But I had forgotten that I had saved the Grinch spoof that I wrote for a Christmas door-decorating contest at the Erie Times-News in 2000. That year, despite excellent job evaluations, I got ensnared in some inter-office politics and my journalism job was unexpectedly switched from lifestyle editor to administrative editor.
I could either grouse about my new assignment, which included a pay cut, or embrace it. I opted for the latter, and decided that I'd approach my new role with humor, too. Hence the Grinch parody, in which I poked fun at my task of preparing the newsroom budget.
The Administrative Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now please don't ask why. No one knows quite the reason.
It could be her head wasn't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that her shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that her spreadsheets were two sizes too small.
Eighteen years after I wrote those lines, I found myself engrossed in spreadsheets again, alarmed that the City of Erie faced an $11 million deficit but determined to whittle as much as I could from Mayor Joe Schember's spending plan.
The budget was due, said the head of all Who-ville.
There were numbers to crunch,
So she had to get busy.
How high was that bill?
How much was that lunch?
All through the week
She played with Excel.
But the more she did tweak
It just didn't jell.
In the words of Yogi Berra, it was like déjà vu all over again.
I did my homework on the city budget. I read the 91-page preliminary budget and the accompanying 90-page budget workbook. I highlighted startling facts about salaries, overtime, PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) programs and non-profit assessments.
The payroll was growing.
The overtime, too!
Red ink was flowing.
Boo hoo, boo hoo!
Earlier in the year, using data from the city finance office, I had created my own spreadsheet to show that the Golf Fund had lost at least $280,000 in the last five years. Now I've been told that maybe the city will look at golf operations in 2019, too late for savings in the upcoming budget.
I questioned why all 78 city managers, including the 45 percent who don't live in the City of Erie, would get across-the-board 3 percent pay raises in 2019, without any type of performance review. In response, I've been scolded by department heads, who claim that a pay freeze would be akin to a pay cut, because they have to pay more for health insurance.
I pointed out that in 2005, the state's Early Intervention Program recommended that the city enact a 5 percent amusement tax, but that City Council ended up passing a 3 percent tax instead. Mayor Schember's original preliminary budget proposed raising the tax to 5 percent, generating $160,000 in additional annual revenue. Some city residents told me they favored such an increase over other types of tax and fee hikes, because at least it would spread some of the tax burden to suburban residents.
But after protests from Casey Wells, executive director of the Erie Convention Center Authority, the mayor dropped the amusement tax increase. Never mind that according to my rough calculations, the city lost about $2 million in the last 13 years by enacting a lower amusement tax than had been recommended.
She envied the Whos
Whose doors were all decorated.
They worked on the news.
She sat and she calculated.
I've traded my full-time news career for a part-time job on Erie City Council. But I still hoped that one of the principles that journalists fight for, the need for transparency and sunshine in government actions, would also be followed by my council colleagues.
My hopes were quickly dashed.
When council votes on agenda items, the practice is to be silent when voting "yes" and only to speak when voting "no."
At my first council meeting last Jan. 3, I declared that I would vote "yes" and "no" out loud — until a council member claimed that I had agreed to the silent "yes" votes when we approved our rules of procedure at that meeting.
I've looked through the four-inch-thick binder containing the city's codified ordinances and administrative code. I can find no such rule. I also think that the silent "yes" vote is an affront to citizens with physical handicaps. We should be casting our votes aloud, for those who are visually impaired. We should also be recording our votes by using the electronic tote board, activated by a button at our seats, for who are hearing-impaired.
But after I lost the first skirmish about voting, several people warned me to pick my battles. This one wasn't worth antagonizing my colleagues, I decided.
How much will the cars cost?
The postage, the rent?
Will cell phones get lost?
Can we cut one more cent?
With just hours to spare
She stared at the keyboard.
What more could she pare?
What more could she hoard?
During our study sessions on the proposed 2019 budget, council members tried to cut expenses and increase revenues in many ways. For example, Councilmen Jim Winarski and Cas Kwitowski pointed out that when the city gives away free compost, landscape contractors take advantage of the giveaways and haul away compost to resell. Can we charge for compost, they asked?
So the finance department gave us a sheet showing that Millcreek Township charges $25 per yard for its leaf compost, leading me to believe that we might do the same in 2019.
Then the City of Erie's recycling calendar for 2019 came in the mail. Yes, we are still giving away free compost. Perhaps it wouldn't generate much revenue, but it's discouraging that any suggestions for small savings seem to go nowhere.
That's because government bureaucracy is not suited to make changes — even when the need for change is urgent and apparent.
I grew up in a business in which we had to produce a new product — a printed newspaper — at least once every 24 hours, and more often when news broke late. We called the updated edition a "makeover." Today, thanks to digital tools, journalists perform makeovers by the minute. I guess I get impatient when others approach change in a plodding fashion.
Journalists are also trained to ask hard questions, until they (we) get all of the facts. But when I've quizzed a city official at a caucus session or a council meeting, I've been told that I am "insulting" them.
But you can't lay out a roadmap for the future if you don't question past practices and scrutinize current procedures, and I don't intend to stop asking questions in the public interest.
At that first council meeting, I suggested that in light of the historic snowfalls that buried our city in December, we should look at best practices for snow removal and for on-street parking.
But after praising the efforts of public works employees and listening to some complaints from citizens about problems experienced during last winter's storms, we never revisited the topic.
I have also pushed to make sure that the city's independent authorities and boards would more accurately reflect the demographics of our community. Appointees to these volunteer positions should also enhance the skill sets of the boards and authorities.
We've made some progress there. City Councilwoman Kathy Schaaf has advertised on the city's website for volunteers for authority and board openings.
But for the most part, appointing someone to an authority is still viewed as one of the perks of being on City Council. Appointments are doled out by council members in a convoluted system, based on whose "turn" it is to name an appointee.
For example, I am the liaison to the Erie Sewer Authority, but in less than a year in which I've served in that role, three council members have appointed three new Sewer Authority members — all white males — without seeking applications from the public.
Similarly, Councilman Kwitowski is the liaison to the Erie Regional Airport Authority but Councilman Winarski just appointed a new member to the airport board — Richard Wagner, who already serves on the Erie Water Authority. We had 51 people who expressed interest in serving on City Council, to fill out the term that became vacant when Councilman Bob Merski was elected to the state House of Representatives. Surely some of those council applicants would be interested in serving on a board or authority.
The deadline was ticking,
The pressure was building.
And what happened then?
Well, in Who-ville they say
That the Grinch's small spreadsheets
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute her heart didn't feel quite so tight,
She whizzed with her budget through the afternoon light.
And she brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!
And she — herself — carved the roast beef!
She still had one question.
Did it really make sense?
To consider the roast beef
A capital expense?
After my first year on City Council, I've learned that I won't be graded on whether I know the definition of a capital expense in the city budget.
There's also no extra credit for going above and beyond the assigned work, because politics in Erie isn't academic. But it is old school — based too often on who you know and how things have always been done.
If I had to do a performance review, I'd give myself a B-plus for effort and a C-minus for accomplishments, because I haven't shepherded any ordinances through from proposal to passage.
But I am not discouraged.
Two weeks ago, I spoke to the Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy about the history of Erie City Council and one question from a member of the group lingers: How will I measure success as an Erie City Council member when my term ends, in 2021?
I bumbled a bit in my reply to Kurt B. Crays, executive director of the Erie United Methodist Alliance and one of 25 young professionals in the JES class. Truthfully, I hadn't mapped out a four-year plan when I was sworn into office last Jan. 2.
His question made me realize that making change in government is more akin to a marathon than a sprint.
On Dec. 19, at the final City Council meeting of 2018, I complained about the unorthodox procedure in which we appointed former City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. to fill Merski's seat the previous night. Jones, who previously served three terms on council, is qualified, smart and collaborative. I merely objected to the process, not to him.
Council had narrowed the list of council hopefuls from the original 51 to 20; two of the finalists bowed out and we interviewed 18 candidates. We would then cast ballots for six candidates, then four, then two, then one.
But at the last minute, before we marked our first votes, we were informed that on the first ballot, we could cast all six of our votes for one candidate.
At the end of the Council meeting the next evening, I recounted one of the inspiring moments for my decision to run for City Council — the Women's March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2017, in which millions of us chanted, "This is what democracy looks like!"
Stuffing the ballot box to appoint a new City Council member is not what democracy looks like, I said.
Then I pulled out my pink pussy hat and announced that I will be running for president in 2020 — president of City Council, that is.
And about my emails? I've saved them all.
Did you know?
Between 1912 and 1913, the City of Erie operated under a Select Council and a Common Council, according to information provided by the City Clerk's office.
In 1914, the city changed to a commission form of government, under which council members also served in various jobs in the administration.
On Feb. 6, 1934, the Court of Common Pleas appointed Nellie Munger to finish the term of her husband, H.L. Munger, after he died on Jan. 4. Another woman would not serve on council until Joyce Savocchio in 1982.
On Nov. 3, 1959, Erie voters adopted the Mayor-Council Plan A of the Optional Third Class City Law form of government, which provided the election of a mayor and a seven-member council. The new government went into effect on Jan. 1, 1962.
According to the clerk's records, Theodore Eichorn was the first of eight councilmen to die in office, during the 1932-33 session (the record does not list the exact date of his death). Edward J. Allen was appointed to succeed Eichorn. If I am reading my family tree correctly, Allen was my great-great uncle. — Liz Allen
Liz Allen hopes that her second year in City Council will be less stressful than her first, when she suffered a heart attack four months after taking the oath of office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.