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Mixed agendas drive county government

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By Robert Gibson

What motivates the actions and decisions of our county council?
Councils change every two years.  I served on four and worked with six others.  
Interactions among any seven people will be different.  But common themes run through most councils.
The first and official motivation, of course, is the best interest of the citizens the council represents and serves.  
There will be legitimate and healthy differences of opinion over what that best interest is.  
Elected legislators everywhere are frequently torn between doing what their constituents want (representation) and what they think best (leadership).   
Second is the interest of our professional county staff.  In principle, council sets policy; staff executes it and provides the day-to-day services.  
We are blessed with many very capable and hard-working public employees.  
Like any group, they also have their personal and organizational agendas.  Staff has very strong influence on council.
This influence is most obvious in the greatly oversized buildings built or planned for them. The White Rock Fire Station, Airport Basin/Pajarito Cliffs shops and yards, Justice Center, and now the Municipal Building were all needed.  
But all are far larger and hence more expensive to build and maintain than necessary.  Staff tells council what they “need;” council rarely pushes back.  
Operating budgets are less obvious, but similarly oversized.  
One councilor a few years ago asked the pathetic question during a council meeting:  “Staff are the experts; who are we to question them?”  
The reluctance to challenge staff results in little accountability and often a low performance bar.  
Council refused a decade ago to hold staff accountable for the delays in Canyon Road reconstruction.  
So, today, we are fuming through the fifth year of the “three-year” Diamond Drive project.
A third major factor in council actions, and one reason for the deference to staff, is council’s workload.  It is enormous.  
It is easier for councilors to simply accept what they are handed than to make their own critical evaluations.  
Council decisions often represent the path of least effort for council, not best effort for the community.
An obvious recent example is the promotion two years ago of an assistant county administrator to the top job.  
Council at that time avoided critical review of the candidate’s style and performance, listened to influential senior staff, took the easy path for the short run, and avoided the effort of a broad search.  
That easy choice led to the predictable disaster.   
The fourth major influence is councilors’ own personal agendas and egos.  
We have been blessed with many who ran for office and served selflessly.
We have had a few driven mostly by their own ego or political ambition.  
Others are in between.  Personal ambition often manifests in desires for certain committee or representation assignments, but most commonly in quests to “be the chair.”  
Ambition is rarely correlated with ability.  
The pursuit is of the position, not the job.  
Finally, there is public influence. Its effect varies widely by issue and by councilor.  
True public sentiment is a challenge to divine.  It is often manipulated or misinterpreted by various interests in the community or in the government itself.        
Conspicuously missing above are two motivations often pervasive in other governments. Political party partisanship is rarely a factor in our county council’s actions.  
Councilors have a broad spectrum of political philosophies, of course.  
They are only loosely correlated with party registration.  (Several of our biggest spenders are Republicans.)
Party line votes are rare and almost always coincidental. We can only wish our federal and state legislators were similarly independent in their thinking.
Graft is entirely absent.  Community expectations and scrutiny strictly prohibit any personal profit by our public officials.
Our councilors work hard and their efforts stand tall compared with peers in many other local governments.  
Like all of us and democracy itself, they are not perfect.  While the public’s best interest should be the only one they serve, it is not.  
The cavernous new buildings, unnecessarily high taxes and perpetual road reconstruction are daily reminders that our government, like many others, increasingly serves itself first.
The above applies to general county government.  The Utilities Department is overseen by the semi-autonomous Board of Public Utilities.  The dynamics are quite different.          

Robert Gibson
Former county councilor