Pressure is a dynamic force for change.
In nature it transforms coal, the most basic of natural resources, into the most precious of desired objects, a diamond.
In the world of politics, pressure can spur diplomatic action of historic dimensions or a tawdry sex scandal that topples a leader.
Pressure, caused by the lack of anticipated casino cash in Niagara Falls has generated a very real political force of its own. That pressure has created a vacuum of leadership at City Hall: a vacuum that City Controller Maria C. Brown moved last week to fill.
On the front page of the Niagara Gazette she quite obviously assumed the driver's seat at City Hall by boldly recommending the dismissal of six city employees who were, she said, draining the city's casino cash account. That bank account is not only empty, but is believed to be in debt.
The taxpayers are now receiving a clearly disturbing picture of the dysfunction that runs rampant in City Hall. Pressure from a lack of cash is forcing, quite naturally, some of the team members to toss the game plan and work from their own agenda.
As the casino cash has dried up, incidents of blame placing have increased. Increased to the point where it now makes front-page news.
The City Council instituted a spending freeze two weeks ago. Mayor Paul Dyster and the Council majority, namely, Chairman Sam Fruscione, Robert Anderson and Glenn Choolokian, have exchanged barbs, and the controller appears to be the figurative monkey in the middle in an unpleasant game of he said, she said.
Right now, the mayor and Council majority are engaged in an endless loop of disagreement as to the nature of the cash shortage. To top this off, the city controller appears unable (either through deed or by design forced upon her) to solve the problem. Clearly, the controller's office is hemmed in by the executive (mayor) and legislative (Council) Mexican standoff.
But I think I have the solution to the problem, a solution to the deadlock of executive and legislative branch, a cure to the fiscal illness that plagues city government:
Make the city controller an elected position.
In the current fiscal configuration, there are three men (two men and one woman, actually) in the room. Two are elected, one is appointed. It makes no sense.
Perhaps at one time it made sense, but no longer. Only three equals with the same "skin in the game" of holding elected office can negotiate sensibly and fairly when it comes to managing taxpayer cash.
Winston Churchill wrote that, "Nothing focuses one's attention so well as the prospect of being hanged in the morning." We could paraphrase this as, "Nothing encourages sincere cooperation as the prospect of being driven from office in the next election cycle." Currently, only the mayor and Council can be sent packing by the voters. The city controller is not elected.
The counties, towns and cities of New York have elected fiscal officers (controllers, comptrollers, treasurers, etc.) more often than not and there's a good reason. It gives the taxpayers a choice as to who'll be the surrogate to manage their tax dollars. If you perform poorly as a money manager, you're turned out of office.
Does it work? Yes. And for the proof of it you don't have to look any further than Erie County and the way that Erie County's finances were kept transparent and accounted for through the give and take of former county executive Chris Collins and former comptroller Mark Poloncarz.
In New York state, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, is obviously his own man in the way he deals with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Same political party but not always on the same page finance-wise, and that's a win for the state taxpayers.
Significantly, elected Buffalo Comptroller Andrew SanFilippo ruled against using the Community Foundation of Buffalo to funnel money from anonymous donors to pay a portion of Buffalo City Hall's top salaries.
The same plan -- with disastrous results -- was approved by Mayor Dyster and the unelected Mrs. Brown.
In Buffalo, City Hall salaries remained reasonable, and are, for comparable positions, lower than Niagara Falls although Buffalo is five times larger.
The taxpayers here, without an elected controller, got the "Building A Better Niagara" fund used to fund huge raises for top Dyster aides -- his so-called "best and brightest."
After the fund was questioned for its secrecy, that of having anonymous donors paying for salaries at City Hall, the Council voted to cancel the fund, but there was no elected controller with the will to roll back salaries. Higher wages disproportionate to other cities became the standard at City Hall.
An elected official at the helm of the fiscal ship might have avoided this mistake and created a transparency and dynamic of accountability that benefits both overall government and individual taxpayer.
This recommendation isn't made as a criticism of the current controller. It's made through the observation that once again Niagara Falls appears to be out of step with what other more successful, better functioning governments are doing.
It looks like the mayor, Council and controller are all equally to blame for the stalemate and cloudy financial picture.
How to fix it? Make the three principals equally responsible in the eyes of the voter: Make them all elected officials.
The present configuration of city government gives the controller all of the power of an elected official with none of the responsibilities and headaches connected to elected office, such as, raising campaign funds, knocking on doors, stump speeches, delivering on campaign promises and answering to the voters.
It's all the power with no responsibility, or more colloquially, an unelected controller is having their cake and eating it too.
Never let it be said that the Niagara Falls Reporter hasn't offered good advice with a sincere heart for better city government. And this advice doesn't come with a price tag like those consultant reports that aren't read and cost a small fortune.
This advice is on the house and dead on the money: Make the city controller an elected position.
Contact Joe Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 17 2012|