Promises, Promises…

You made me promises promises,
Knowing I’d believe,
Promises promises,
You knew you’d never keep – Naked Eyes

Yesterday, the Memphis City Council decided against bringing two charter proposals up for vote in the November 4th election. Some of the details can be found here.

Basically, there were two items up for a vote. One would give the Council power to approve or deny Deputy Division Directors, the other would give the Council oversight of City contracts totaling $100,000 or more.

Because the minutes of yesterday’s proceedings aren’t yet available, I’m not sure where the individual members came down on either issue, ultimately it’s not important at this point.

Appointment Oversight

On the first issue, the Council chose to take the Mayor at his word that he would provide copies of appointee’s resumes rather than put a Chartered solution that would carry no matter who the Mayor is, in front of the voters. I’m not questioning Mayor Herenton’s word at all. In fact, I see no reason why the Mayor wouldn’t do this, if for no other reason, to remove allegations of cronyism. I’m questioning the logic of a verbal contract that would cease to exist under a new administration rather than a charter amendment that would mandate more oversight.

On this particular matter, there is a great deal of opportunity for cronyism in this and future administrations. Mandating oversight protects the citizens of Memphis from paying for an unqualified person both during the course of the administration in question, and later through pensions, etc. This particular question needs to be brought back up and put before the people. Aside from more work for the Council, I don’t see a down side, though I’m sure someone will provide one for me.

Contracts

The second question is more complicated. This measure would have mandated that the City Council approve contracts valued greater than $100,000. This measure was also set aside in favor of a future resolution that would require the Mayor to provide a quarterly report of contracts over $100,000, recurring contracts, and contracts exceeding 5 years. This future resolution has the potential to be more comprehensive than the question that would have been put before voters, but suffers from many of the same problems.

Problem 1 – Gaming the System: Just how long do you think it would take for vendors seeking no oversight to split up their contracts into a series of $99,999.99 contracts? No time. The truth of the matter is that placing an arbitrary threshold on oversight is a bad idea.

Problem 2 – Volume: The sheer volume of contracts that cross that arbitrary threshold may create a situation where other Council business is held hostage to the approval process. I would imagine that the contract that covers janitorial supplies for the city gets up near $100,000 a year. Is that really what we want the Council to be dealing with?

Problem 3 – Real Oversight: This proposal doesn’t allow the Council to address smaller contracts that may need to be reviewed. Remember this article from the 10th. Some oversight may have saved the City thousands of dollars.

Yes, we need oversight, but we also have to strike a balance between the time constraints of a part-time Council as well as the civic interests of oversight and openness. Arbitrary thresholds are not the answer. The answer is complete openness that allows concerned citizens as well as Council Members easy access to information that can then be brought before the Council for further oversight. How this would look is also something that needs to be debated, however, until the question gets asked under the correct frame; that all city contracts should be open to easy public inspection and Council oversight, any specifics are just pissing in the wind.

And now for your listening pleasure, the song I quoted above…

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