Do we even need a city council?

Last month, the citizens of Pensacola voted to reduce the number of council seats from nine to seven. Based on last week’s meetings, the city might want to consider getting rid of them all.

The council doesn’t do much these days, anyway. One of the few powers they have in the 2010 charter is to “adopt the annual budget and all other appropriations” each year. However, thanks to a creative interpretation of a city ordinance and a council policy, Mayor Ashton Hayward and CFO Dick Barker have been able to transfer appropriations between line items (and even between departments) after the budget has been adopted. That’s how the marketing contract with the Zimmerman Agency (the so-called “million dollar logo“) was funded without council approval.

A proposal by Councilman Charles Bare would have limited the mayor’s ability to transfer appropriations; anything over $50,000 would have required council approval.

“I think the power of amending the budget is something that we should hold very precious as a council,” Bare said at Thursday’s meeting. “Current policy allows the mayor to move money at his discretion, and I believe we need to have more of a say in that.”

Bare’s proposal was defeated in a 5-4 vote.

A tale of five cities

Council President P.C. Wu explained why he voted against council oversight for transfers over $50,000.

“The people, the City of Pensacola, took a vote that they wanted one person to run the city,” Wu said, referring to the 2009 referendum for a mayor-council government. “They wanted that one person to run the city and have the responsibility of running the city. If they do not like the way the person runs the city, then there’s an election.”

(The 2009 charter ballot language did not say anything about one person running the city. Indeed, the pro-charter group Believe in a Better Pensacola specifically assured voters that the council would continue to control the city’s “purse strings.”)

Wu went on:

To require [the mayor] to come to us every time there’s a transfer of $50,000… I’m not aware of another strong mayor city that does this. I don’t believe it’s done for Joe Riley in [Charleston] South Carolina, I don’t believe that it’s done in Tampa, I don’t believe it’s done  in Orlando, I don’t believe it’s done in Atlanta, I don’t believe it’s done in Miami. So I would urge defeat of [Bare’s] proposal.

Is it true that the mayors of those cities can transfer appropriations without any oversight by the legislative branch?

“No,” said Kathy Mercer, budget director of the City of Charleston. “Any transfer over $40,000 that’s not considered an administrative transfer has to be approved by council, unless there’s an emergency like a natural disaster.”

So Charleston’s threshold for requiring council approval is $10,000 lower than what was proposed by Councilman Bare. What about the other cities mentioned?

According to the Tampa city charter, “No money may be disbursed from the city treasury except in pursuance of appropriations made by the city council.” The city’s budget document states that post-adoption amendments “may be initiated by the Mayor at any time, and after City Council approval, the funds appropriated are adjusted or realigned.” (Emphasis added.)

Orlando is a bit more complicated. They have a multi-tier system for “requests to change any appropriation” after the budget is approved; requests over $5,000 must be approved by a Budget Review Committee, which is comprised of the mayor’s staff and appointees. However, according to Orlando’s Deputy CFO Ray Elwell, council approval is needed for interdepartmental transfers, to add or remove personnel funding, for any capital outlays, or for any single expenditure over $100,000. (The Zimmerman contract would have triggered three of those.)

Atlanta’s budget is pretty clear: “After the initial annual budget is adopted, it may be amended for interdepartmental transfers of appropriations with the approval of City Council.” (Emphasis added.)

Ditto for Miami (emphasis added): “Transfers between City departments must be approved by the City Commission. Revisions that alter the total appropriation of expenditures for any City department within a fund must be approved by the City Commission.”

“The only thing the mayor can do is veto,” said a City of Miami budget office employee on Friday. “He has no power to amend the budget at his will.”

A modest proposal

Even if those other cities have checks and balances on how appropriations are handled outside the budget process, clearly the Pensacola City Council isn’t interested in the same.

That poses a question: if the adopted budget can be amended without limit, what’s the point of the budget process? Instead of a 510-page document filled with thousands of line items, there could just be a single page that says, “We think there’s around $192 million, give or take a few dozen million, and we’re going to spend that in some way.” Why are council members spending hours in budget workshops this week if it’s just theater?

Or more to the point: if the council members truly believe that the voters want “one person to run the city,” why have a council at all?

When Councilman Larry Johnson proposed eliminating the two at-large seats, he pointed out that it would save the city $48,000 annually ($14,000 salary plus $10,000 in discretionary funds each). If the remaining seven seats were eliminated, the city would save an additional $168,000 annually. Council chambers could even be leased out to generate revenue.

At Monday’s agenda conference meeting, Mayor Hayward warned the council that requiring approval of interdepartmental transfers would “slow government up.” He’s absolutely right; another word for that is “deliberation.” Sometimes a little deliberation is a welcome thing, but if the council has no desire to be a deliberative body, let’s stop wasting the taxpayers’ money to fund it.