What Does Jamestown’s City Council Do?
What, exactly, does the Jamestown City Council do?
We’re scratching our heads trying to answer that question, particularly after the City Council’s Public Safety Committee cancelled its meeting May 12 for a lack of agenda items. Public Works Committee meetings are cancelled regularly. The council’s Housing Committee met a total of five times in 2012 and 2013, though we note with optimism more frequent and productive meetings thus far in 2014.
Committee meetings serve several purposes. Routine items are discussed at committee meetings so they can be placed on the council’s voting session agenda and approved by the full council. They are the first area where payment of the city’s bills are discussed, where maintenance for city buildings and equipment is discussed and where status reports are given on matters concerning the city’s budget. Consider these items the business of government.
The Public Safety Committee, meanwhile, is the group that approves event applications, they are discussed with members of the police and fire departments to make sure the events don’t endanger the public or have adequate public safety protection and that necessary items like insurance coverage have been secured so city taxpayers aren’t held liable for a private event.
Council members perform these duties perfectly well.
There is another purpose to committee meetings that doesn’t seem to be taking place very often. According to the City Charter, the Finance Committee covers the fiscal administration of the city, including taxes. The Public Works Committee includes highways, streets, alleys, bridges, sidewalks, pavements, gutters, sewers, sewage treatment, public projects and the like. The Public Safety Committee includes investigations, reports on suggested public policies, ordinances and attention to any other city matter for which a committee does not otherwise exist. The Housing Committee covers aspects of housing, property rehabilitation, code compliance and enforcement.
Committee meetings are a time for some discussion of infrastructure, more discussion of taxes and city spending, ordinances and changes that can make life better and easier for city residents and improve the state of city neighborhoods. Cancelling those meetings, and ending the opportunity for discussion, because of a lack of perfunctory approval items seems a waste of the taxpayers’ time.
Surely it doesn’t take nine elected representatives to approve event applications, training trips or pay routine bills. Sadly, one hardly needs an abacus to count the number of times since January 2013 concerns of city residents were discussed.
Use drugs as an example. City police are increasingly busy policing drugs in Jamestown and with the smaller crimes like robberies or some assaults that are tied to drugs. Drugs were rarely mentioned in Public Safety Committee minutes in 2013. They were mentioned once after Police Chief Harry Snellings reported to committee members about a conference and then in October after a meth lab caught fire on Spruce Street and prompted discussion at two Public Safety Committee meetings. An overall discussion of crime city rarely made it to council discussions.
There are positives. The council is a collegial body – there is little to no political grandstanding. Gridlock hasn’t been a problem for the council for decades. Of course, gridlock means people talking and taking positions, something which hardly ever happens with the council. That is caused in part by having a strong mayor’s office. Much of the city’s business is driven by Mayor Sam Teresi and his department heads. That model shouldn’t mean the job of a City Council member is to say aye to mundane resolutions and turn a blind eye to problems where city residents deserve as many intelligent solutions as possible.
Every time you drive down a street that needs patching, remember the Public Works Committee that cancels meetings regularly for lack of agenda items. When you read about a drug arrest or arson and wonder what the city is doing, remember the Public Safety Committee that cancels meetings when there are no mundane items needing approvals. Every time your tax bill goes up, remember the Finance Committee that hardly talked about the budget or solutions to the financial issues facing the city from January to August. When you see a house in your neighborhood rotting away to its core, remember a Housing Committee that met five times over two years.
City officials have long lamented that no one attends City Council meetings. Perhaps more people would attend if the council spent less time discussing the mundane and more time on issues.