Syracuse Common Council missed the boat on responsive government (Commentary)

Comment and interact with readers at http://www.syracuse.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/02/syracuse_common_council_missed_the_boat_on_responsive_government_commentary.html

Frank Cetera, of Syracuse, was the Green Party's at-large candidate for Syracuse Common Council in November. Cetera also applied to fill a council vacancy. 

By Frank Cetera | Special to Syracuse.com

After the 2017 general election in November, a distinct difference in the political will of elected officials could be seen in looking at a case study of two very different cities as they moved to fill empty city council seats. Seattle, Washington, accomplished something that Syracuse, New York, could not (or would not) -- a resident-driven process for public engagement and input for appointing their next city councilor.

The situation in Seattle was simple. Councilor Tim Burgess left the Position 8 seat to fill a short-term vacancy at mayor leading up to the November elections. The open seat was important even if it would only be held for a little over a month's time because the person sitting in that seat would have a voice in the 2018 budget process. Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell made the decision to open the process to the public through a process advocated for by the Transparent Seattle Coalition -- which would include an open resume application and two community forums. This was all accomplished within 20 days time.

The situation in Syracuse was similar to the description provided by Hayat Norminie at SeattleMet.com: "No one seems to know much about the appointment process (though this isn't the first time the council has filled a vacancy). And little is being said about which direction council members are going with it." 

What was known is that council President-elect Helen Hudson would move from her at-large council seat on Jan. 1, leaving it vacant until the next general election in November 2018 unless an appointment was made to fill it. And that Hudson, along with current Councilor Khalid Bey, had vehemently objected to an open councilor seat appointment in 2015 that they didn't agree with the process of, with Bey stating it was based on ""charlatans'' who resorted to "underhanded'' maneuvers in pursuit of "cronyism," as reported by Syracuse.com.

Given this recent history, one might expect change in the air for Syracuse, as well. The Common Council was not prevented by any legislation from implementing a "fully apparent, open, and transparent process that is published and followed" as called for in a petition submitted with 135 signatures to the councilors. They decided to not go significantly above and beyond the charter that simply calls for an appointment process by council, even after the public distaste for the 2015 appointment.

An understanding of the formal Rules and Procedures of Common Council are not well understood by the Councilors, let alone the public, as evidenced by failure of the council to read into the record the petition that was submitted, nor to allow comments on the appointment agenda item at a regularly scheduled Council study session meeting.

Eventually, after advocacy that included the petition, an infographic publication and press releases, and multiple instances of media coverage, the council gave some lip service by posting a call for resumes online (which both the identity and resumes of the applicants were not revealed), and selecting three candidates for interviews. This was followed swiftly by a nominating motion and vote all in one fell swoop at a regular meeting with no notice on the published agenda.

The question must be asked in each municipality, and of each candidate, come election time: What is the TARE in your community? What equivalency is given to Transparency, Access, Response and Engagement by council members and others who hold power? 

The call for next steps in ensuring a TARE that is not weighted against the public could include the following: Expanding study sessions and public hearings to a larger variety of times and locations; requiring committee meetings for all proposed legislation; open office hours for councilors; sharing with the public as to the reasoning/opinions behind the votes that are made; a ticket system for constituent services to ensure equal responsiveness for all neighborhoods; civic education for the whole city regarding legislative writing and processes; and fully functioning microphones and sound systems in council chambers.

A recent note by resident members of the Near Westside's Take Back The Streets coalition in Syracuse regarding "needs from service providers" had transparency in the top slot, "about how funding works, how your agency works, your goals, your services and eligibility criteria..." Showing that at many levels, regular people are tired of being in the dark, and thus powerless. 

In Syracuse, where Mayor Ben Walsh ran on a movement of independence from the major party lines, and of a platform of "not business as usual," how did the Common Council miss the boat? Hold tight, a public movement for increasing the TARE is rowing the lifeboats.

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