Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Oshkosh City Council: 2007-2011 Version

On Tuesday, April 16th my spouse Lori Palmeri was sworn in as mayor of Oshkosh. When I served on the Oshkosh Common Council from 2007 - 2011, now Mayor Palmeri was a constant source of encouragement, wisdom, and sanity. During those years she was studying at UW Oshkosh and UW Milwaukee to be an urban planner, and being able to observe up close how City Hall worked (or did not work) was very helpful to her as she pursued her degrees. We often had marathon length discussion of city issues.
Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri
When Lori decided to run for the City Council herself in 2016 I was thrilled not just because I knew she would do a great job, but because I felt that city government had started to move away from the high standards of accountability that, in my humble opinion, the 2007-2011 Council had established.I felt that Lori could play a major role in returning to a high accountability standard; judging by the fact that she's now been elected twice to the Council and just got elected mayor, I think it's clear that the majority of voters agree.

Why even bring up the 2007-2011 council? Why not just move forward? Indeed, Lori's election was a sign that thousands of people in the city want the city to be future oriented in the best sense: they want government to strive to leave future generations a city that respects but does not fear differences. A city that is open, transparent, welcoming and inclusive, and meets the World Health Organization's definition of healthy city: "A healthy city is one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and and developing their maximum potential." 

2007 Council
The 2007-2009 Oshkosh Common Council: Jessica King, Tony Palmeri, Burk Tower, Mayor Frank Tower, Dennis McHugh, Bryan Bain, Paul Esslinger
So why bring up the past?  Two reasons. First, during the campaign season it was very irritating and offensive to listen to most of the candidates--especially those who would eventually lose on April 2--talk about prior city councils. Listening to them, you would think that local government in Oshkosh did nothing good before 2010/2011 (the years in which the losing 2019 candidates first got elected to the Council.). I said nothing during the campaign season because I did not want to take any attention away from Lori. 

Second, while the city council from 2007-2011 was far from perfect and suffered from some dysfunction (as do ALL governmental bodies), the council in those years made some MAJOR strides in raising the bar for governance in Oshkosh. Indeed, much of what later Councils took credit for were actually initiatives of the 2007-2011 councils. Examples (in no particular order):

*Long Range Finance Committee. Almost every member of the City Council since 2011 has praised the Long Range Finance Committee for the way it assists the council and city staff in coming up with creating ways to address budget issues. Guess what? The Long Range Finance Committee was proposed soon after the 2007 Council was sworn in and created not too long after.

*Sustainability Advisory Board. Today it's fashionable to talk about sustainability in local government. The 2007-2011 City Council went beyond lip service and created the Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB). In 2019 the SAB still does not have enough power to impact public policy in Oshkosh (I argued during its creation that it should be at the same level of influence as the Parks Advisory Board or Plan Commission, which still is not the case unfortunately), but they do vital work and serve as an important reminder that we cannot continue to do business as usual and expect to create a healthy city.

*Hiring a New City Manager: For years before I got elected in 2007, there was a sense that City Manager Richard Wollangk, though a pleasant person and deeply committed to Oshkosh, was not showing the leadership necessary to move the city forward. The 2007-2009 city council made it clear that major changes were needed, leading to Mr. Wollangk's retirement. We then hired Mark Rohloff as the new manager. All subsequent Councils have given Mr. Rohloff very favorable reviews--and some individual councilors have given him the lion's share of credit for economic development projects that have taken place--yet the city council that made his hiring possible almost never gets credit.
The 2008 City Council hired Mark Rohloff as City Manager and created the annual State of the City Address in the interest of openness and transparency.
*Other Personnel Moves:The Oshkosh City Council has no formal power to hire or remove city department heads. However, the council can make its displeasure with departments known clearly to the city manager and create conditions under which changes will be made. Pressure from the 2007-2011 council allowed for changes to be made in the planning, inspections, legal, and other departments. 

*City Manager Evaluation: It's now widely accepted that the council's evaluation of the city manager should be thorough, rigorous, and transparent. The 2007-2011 council began the process of investing the deputy mayor with significant responsibility to make sure that the evaluation process meets those criteria. We also started the trend of writing up specific sets of annual goals for the city manager to give special emphasis to. In my view the evaluation still lacks sufficient public input and transparency, and councils have not done a great job at making sure the stated goals are being met, but overall the process is much better than it was pre-2007. 

*State of the City Address: The 2007-2011 councils established the principle that the city manager should be a visible member of the community, and should provide the taxpayers with an annual update as to the major priorities being acted on. We thus created the "State of the City" address. Another small but significant victory for transparency in government. 

*Meaningful Debate on Issues: The city council from 2007-2011 was often bashed in the local press for having long meetings. I once wrote about how the meeting length criticism was largely a myth, but we unquestionably did sometimes have long discussions. The main reason was because the council in those years actually had a majority of members, ranging from those who would define themselves as progressives to those who would define themselves as conservative, who saw it as their responsibility to provide reasons for why they were voting the way they did. The diverse mix of ideologies and personalities on the council in those years seemed to provoke longer council statements and more citizen involvement.  

*Special Event Ordinance: The 2007-2011 council took the issue of special events seriously, and had the administration prepare data on how much the events actually cost the taxpayers. While the ordinance is still a work in progress and has been interpreted as covering events that most of us on the council did not anticipate at the time (block parties, etc.), I don't think anyone can doubt that the ordinance was necessary to produce some public accountability for organizations that need city resources to make events happen. 

*Flood Control: The city in 2008 faced some of the worst flooding seen in years. The council responded by empowering city staff to come up with aggressive plans for flood control. Though we have a way to go, much progress has been made in this area over the years. 
In 2008 the city of Oshkosh suffered from historic flooding. The city council moved aggressively on flood control efforts, establishing an ethic of infrastructure improvement that each succeeding council had kept in place.
*Neighborhood Revitalization:  Today the council talks about the city's neighborhood revitalization efforts as if they are new. The 2007-2011 council brought in Neighborworks out of Green Bay to help us create a model for rebuilding neighborhoods in Oshkosh. Neighborworks ultimately did not work out, and we did not make enough progress overall in this area, but we set down a foundation that gave future councils something to work with. 

*TIF District Procedures: Before 2007 it was pretty much a given that the city of Oshkosh would create Tax Incremental Finance districts for pretty much any developer project. As a result, Oshkosh had created more TIFs than just about any city its size in the state, without providing any kind of user friendly citizens' guide for understanding the cost of the TIF, the metrics to determine success or failure, or even why TIF is necessary for most projects. We still are not close to where we need to be in creating more accountability on TIF, but the 2007-2011 councils began the process of demanding more rationale for TIF projects, and using the "Pay-Go" method which is of less risk to taxpayers. 

*Reviewing the City's Fee Structure. In 2009 Mayor Paul Esslinger requested city staff to provide information on the city's fee structure. Esslinger was a political lightning rod, and so his request was immediately framed as him looking for ways to reduce fees on his own business venture, but the fact that got lost is that anyone serious about small business development in a municipal setting has to come to terms with the cost of doing business. To this day the city has never done a sufficient, rigorous accounting of fees or come up with a solid reform proposal. At least the 2009 council put this important issue on the map. Hopefully the new and future councils will revive the idea. 

*Reviewing Board and Commission Membership. Esslinger was also the first mayor that I am aware of who tried to tackle the issue of how to make sure the city's citizen boards and commissions were open to new membership. Because he proposed the idea, it was framed once again as something nefarious: he somehow just wanted to replace board members he didn't like. Today just about every member of the city council agrees that we need to find ways to expand and diversify the membership on boards and commissions. Hopefully Mayor Palmeri will be able to make some progress in that area without having it framed as some kind of vendetta.  

*Agenda Revision To Monitor Spending: Much of the taxpayer money that gets spent in the city is approved during council meetings in the "consent agenda" portion of the meeting. For most of the city's history, the consent agenda items would be published without any dollar amount. It was as if major projects were being accomplished for free. The 2007 council actually was the first one to require that dollar amounts go on the consent agenda so that citizens can literally calculate how much is being spent at a given meeting. I consider that to be a small but significant victory for transparency in local government. 

*Divided Votes: I moved to Oshkosh in 1989, and probably watched every city council meeting from 1989 until my own election in 2007. What I noticed and was disturbed by all those years was that on virtually every issue, the vote was 7-0, 6-1, or 5-2. The perception was that many councilors were just automatic yes votes, and others were automatic no votes. I didn't get the sense that any of the councilors were actually listening to each other. The 2007 - 2011 council was extremely unique for Oshkosh in that we often had 4-3 votes! For the first time since 1956 (the year the council-manager form of government came here), outcomes of votes were not predictable. The Oshkosh establishment, which had grown accustomed to getting its way with little substantive debate over those years, all of a sudden had to--gasp--try and make some persuasive arguments to get that fourth vote. The late Ken Bender, a legendary gadfly who spoke at pretty much every city council meeting for decades, publicly told the 2008 council that he thought it was the best he had ever seen--BECAUSE the 4-3 votes indicated that the views of the entire city were being listened to and represented.

Conclusion: Media should do a better job of providing history of local government

I'm the first to admit that the 2007-2011 city council did not go near far enough in moving the city forward. We did not produce enough reform in critical areas like budget transparency and innovation, diversity and inclusion, rental inspection and other housing issues, and a variety of others. When city manager Rohloff made it clear that he was not interested in moving the city in any dramatic new direction, we did not sufficiently insist on anything different. We offered little resistance to the creation of the "event city" brand, when we had at least one compelling alternative to choose from (Nellesen and Associates suggestion that we brand ourselves "healthy, sustainable, and green."). We did serve at a time of what was probably the most severe recession in the history of the United States (the 2008-2009 crash), but that can't be an excuse.

One of the beautiful things about the United States of America is that millions of average, everyday people serve in a variety of local government roles. Most of those people will never be known, and their honorable service will be mostly forgotten by all except those closest to them. Media sources should do a better job of reminding communities of how they got to where they are now. Such historical writing not only serves to respect and honor the prior service offered by citizens who took the time to make meaningful contributions, but it also helps make better decisions in the present. By doing a better job of showing the historical roots of current issues, media can help current officials get a better sense of when they are reinventing the wheel, slowing the wheel down, or inventing a whole new one.