The ongoing pandemic gives us a chance to see what city government looks like without citizens’ presence, input or participation.
To us, it looks like a bad play.
- Consider: City boards and commissions, the principle method by which citizens participate and offer their ideas, are either not meeting at all or else are reduced — for social-distancing reasons — to brief meetings on Zoom or WebEx. (Nothing against these technologies, but they do not facilitate discussion, debate or deep analysis.)
- The City Council, elected but part-time, is the ultimate citizens’ body. It is barely meeting. None of its committees are meeting. The individual members have taken to “listening sessions” on Zoom. But again, these virtual meetings allow for little give-and-take. Rather, they come off as what they are, the disembodied voices of a handful of citizens who knew to sign on, and of smiling office-holders with nods and platitudes.
- The 18 Citizens Advisory Councils, which allowed every citizen — every resident — to talk turkey with our elected councilors and city staff, were abolished by the current Council in February. So good luck, Average Joe or Jane, getting through with a question or concern, let alone a suggestion, either in person or online.
In the absence of citizen input, and perhaps because half of its members are brand-new, the Council looks to be frozen on stage, with nothing original to offer, reduced to reading from a script. They look to the City Manager for direction and he gives it to them, in the simplest of terms, telling them what to say and what to do, which is very little.
And then they adjourn.
But not, it must be noted, before they all congratulate one another on the great job everyone’s doing!
If this is a hit, we’d hate to see what a flop looks like.
Our mayor, Mary-Ann Baldwin, says that city government doesn’t do social services — that’s a county function. Historically, she’s right. But in this pandemic, one might think that a conscientious government, listening to citizen boards, would figure out how to make the city relevant to those in need, most of whom are quite suddenly in need.
With no citizen boards discussing this question, however, and a Council seemingly dumbstruck to be there at all, no new ideas are coming forth.
The one exception: a pitiful $1 million fund to “assist” all the struggling small businesses, with grants to be made to a handful of them. (The criteria are almost non-existent; as near as we can tell, the idea is to pay their landlords, since the one requirement announced is that the business have a “storefront.”)
Baldwin and the manager, Ruffin Hall, seem to have established as their only goal avoiding a tax increase for the 2020-21 fiscal year. That’s not exactly a big lift. Yes, city revenues are down slightly, but overall — because the city is so reliant on property taxes, the payment of which does not rise or fall very much even in a terrible economy — the budget picture for Raleigh is sanguine.
Why? Because city spending doesn’t vary much either. In fact, city services have been cut a bit (no yard waste pick-up, for example) in response to the pandemic. And meanwhile, the door is closed to any new thinking, whether of things to add or things to cut.
When the economy tanked in 2008-10, the city did not lay off any employees nor did it add to services, and the tax rate remained level. Expect that to happen again, and for City Council to take credit for having watched it happen.
Bottom line: City government runs very smoothly when citizens aren’t involved. The Manager manages, nothing changes, and nothing improves.
It’s the ultimate in laissez-faire government.
By the way, the one thing Council did decide is to let developers push ahead with their projects in the absence not just of citizens’ input but of citizens, period.
For those who think citizens’ participation is just a pain, and the City Council should tune them out, the pandemic is like their dress rehearsal. For a play that shouldn’t open.