Squabbling between the Spokane City Council and the mayor over the city’s budget is nothing unusual. The problem this year is that the council wants to forgo the normal debate and hurriedly approve budget amendments with as little public involvement as possible.
Most years, the mayor proposes a budget, some haggling with council takes place, there are a few changes, and council passes the spending plan. This hasn’t been most years. Mayor David Condon released his 2020 budget proposal back in September. Council last week finally released its list of amendments – 30 of them! – and plans to approve the changes and budget on Monday. That timeline left precious little opportunity for residents– already distracted by the holiday season – to weigh in on the budget amendments. If we didn’t know better, we’d guess that the council waited until the last minute before the holidays specifically to ensure no one noticed.
Actually, we don’t know better. Council has had months to announce its plans. It could have unveiled its amendments weeks ago and afforded time for a robust public conversation about the budget. Instead, it waited until the final hours.
Mayor Condon noted in a memo last week, “Yesterday the City Council laid out a 2020 budget plan that is nothing more than a money grab designed to fund their pet projects without any opportunity for the public to discuss or understand.”
One of council’s responsibilities is to serve as a check on the mayor’s budgeting. Spokane’s government isn’t a one-person show. But it also has an obligation to listen to the people.
The public might even support council’s amendments. Maybe some voters would agree that the mayor wanted to spend too much on hiring 20 new police officials or that the city should create “opportunity funds” to strategically target issues like crime reduction and sustainability. Those are fair policy questions.
It’s less likely that residents would rally behind shifting money to finance more council bureaucracy, though. Council’s budget has more than doubled since 2011, but council still wants more and would increase its funding 35 percent over 2019. Among the expenditures would be a public information officer, paid for with $120,000 transferred from county jail funds. Is the city’s public information office not good enough for council that they need their own person? Council also would create four research analyst positions that answer specifically to council. And it would increase members’ travel budget by $10,000.
With those sorts of goals, no wonder council might want to do this as quickly and quietly as possible.
Then again, it’s possible taxpayers favor padding council’s budget and staff at the expense of other programs. If council believes that, it should make the case and listen to the response.
It’s too late to put off the vote short of holding a special meeting right in the midst of the holidays. Rather, council should back off its most controversial amendments. If the public doesn’t get a chance to comment on major spending changes, the council shouldn’t approve them. Transparent government of the people is as simple as that.
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