Monday, December 10, 2012

Dec. 9 Op-ed as Sent to Daily Times

By Terry E. Cohen, Council President

At the request of some readers, the opinion/editorial (op-ed) I sent to the Daily Times appears below.

Progress doesn’t come from ultimatums

Last Sunday, the Daily Times devoted an extensive amount of space, words and pictures on its front page, news and opinion pages about disputes in Salisbury city government. There were, unfortunately, numerous inaccuracies and misleading statements.

For example, the aggressive dog ordinance isn’t delayed because of council. I scheduled it six times for discussion since July as requested by the administration. Each time the city administrator asked that it be postponed. My space to respond is very limited on a monthly basis by the newspaper, so I will have to refer readers to for a fuller correction of the record.

Today, I’d like to talk about one step for reducing conflict.

The Annapolis chief financial officer who spoke at a Maryland Municipal League (MML) conference a couple of years ago discussed 5-year budgeting. His audience was a mix of municipal legislators, mayors and administrative staff members, but his wise advice was directed to the mayors and staff:

“Get early buy-in from your councils.”

Good advice. It is the council that makes policy, so it’s good business to get these decision-makers on board early to move a goal forward, rather than surprising them with an ultimatum at the end of the process. This is true whether it’s a mayor-council form of government or a city manager-council form of government.

I have been asking the administration for an early buy-in process since I was first elected in 2007. Voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the council functioning as a rubber stamp.

Grants are a perfect opportunity to apply the early buy-in principle – not the small, “reimbursement” grants (such as police overtime), but those that involve city assets (such as real estate) or a large commitment of resources in the future, whether required as a “match” or not.

For the grant that added four new police officers to our force, the federal government required the legislative body’s approval for applying. This ensured that the budget makers were aware of, understood and prepared to meet the grant’s financial and resource obligations.

The result? Salisbury applied as a unified government, prepared for future obligations. The city got four new officers – and everyone was spared the current dramas.

The recent grant for additional firefighters did not have an early buy-in process, resulting in unnecessary drama. Even when grant-making agencies don’t require proof of application submission approval from the legislative body, they often expect that the council is informed and concerns are already addressed. After all, the city government – which by charter means the mayor and the council – is making application, not just the mayor’s office.

The council did not vote down the grant for additional firefighters as the Daily Times erroneously reported. The grant was not moved forward for a vote due to the lack of information in a short window for consideration.

The technical difference is important. If the council had voted to accept the grant right away, the taxpayers could have been on the hook each year for the $400,000 benefits mistake in the grant application that Council Vice President Debbie Campbell’s questions uncovered. Some want to label that “micro-managing,” but there is nothing “micro” about $400,000.

Early “buy-in” also promotes a good reputation and relationship with higher government agencies because the city government is applying with a unified voice. No council should be politically cornered to approve a grant for which they have insufficient information or sincerely feel the terms of a grant aren’t in the best interest of our city. Don’t place these valuable relationships or the city’s reputation at risk in the first place and they won’t be.

Progress does not come from ultimatums. Ultimatums create political drama and divisiveness, which drains time, money, resources and emotions. An early buy-in process is common to success in business and government, identifying and solving problems in a timely and effective manner.

Terry Cohen is president of the Salisbury City Council.