Friday, June 24, 2005

It's Ugly When Council Members Act Like Executives Rather Than Like Legislators

Metro Council member Eric Crafton is up to his tired ways again. He was unable to persuade people that Metro schools suck. He all but lost the battle to pass a budget with no new taxes.

So, what is Crafty Eric up to now? He's working with select Council members on the sly to come up with a budget that would only raise enough revenues to support Cost of Living Increases for Metro employees. He's trying to set the bar as low as possible in order to avoid progress. This in spite of overwhelming support expressed at last Tuesday's Metro Council public hearing for either the Mayor's tax increase initiatives or bigger tax increases to support public schools.

John Spragens, over at the Nashville Scene, submits a revealing account of Mr. Crafton's behind-the-scenes coordination of "research sharing" this week that raises the possibility that Councilman Crafton might have violated open meeting laws. When asked about his raggedy actions in Spragens's piece, Crafton hemmed and hawed the now overused response about not recalling specifics. The statement, "I do not recall," made in the context of a decision that weighs so mightily on the well-being of a community, is the marquee mantra of character flaw, of those who lack personal responsibility.

In Spragens's article, Council member Charlie Tygard was equivocal in a different way about his attendance at these private discussions: he said that budget alternatives were discussed alongside specific topics like Fan Fair and Kerry Wood. However, that presents a whole new question of ethics: firstly, can council members shirk their reponsibility to have open meetings if they merely sandwich public policy discussions between chats about arts and entertainment? Secondly, how does Tygard have time to discuss matters outside the budget with other members of Crafton's ad hoc alternative budget committee, since he said on the record that he wants to devote all of his attention in council at this time to the budget and not to other issues (most especially, ethics)?

But the primary problem here is that Crafton and other Council members are trying to act like the executive branch of Metro government, rather than behaving as legislators. It's up to the Mayor's office to provide a budget proposal. It's up to the Council members to study the proposal, and to react by means of advise and consent based on feedback like that given at the public hearing. Crafton seems to be behaving as if the public hearing--with the exception of the statements made by the Republican Party Chair and the representative from Tennessee Tax Revolt--never really occurred or merely served as a gauge for judging just how low his denominator could go.

Crafton seems to have stuck his finger up the Council chambers' wind currents rather than outside of its doors; and he seems to have found that members' lowest common denominator is to raise enough taxes to pay employees more. His actions are cynical because they come only a matter of days after trying to spin the view that Metro government was so ineffectual that nobody--not employees, not anybody--deserved any more money. As one conservative blogger, who acts as Crafton's conduit, put the flip-flop to me earlier this week: "teachers good, administration bad," which is an oversimplified dualism that sounds like code for "divide and conquer."

That's what Crafton seems to be up to with his private meetings about public matters that are generally the privilege of executives, who are supposed to be relatively independent of voters in their larger vision and through their administrative proposals. But legislators are supposed to provide democratic balance and to advance public demand as they respond to the Mayor's budget. Councilman Crafton seems uninterested in being beholden to the public on the Mayor's budget. He's crafted mercurial agendas of his own and he seems bent on setting the bar as low as he sees fit to keep revenues down and progress at bay. And he seems disinclined to let anything as trivial as ethics stop him.

06/25/2005 10:14 p.m. Update: I e-mailed Council member Ludye Wallace yesterday asking him not to support Crafton's COLA concoction, and at the very least to support Mayor Purcell's proposal. I also expressed the hope that he had not been sitting in on private budget meetings with other Council members, which might be in violation of public meeting laws. I'll keep you updated on his response, if any.

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