Our View: Council’s delegation of authority was an unforced error

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It’s remarkable how often public officials seem tone deaf to how their actions will be perceived.

 This happens too often in Alexandria. The most recent example took place at the city council legislative meeting on Tuesday night.

At this meeting, council considered docket item 17.1, “Updated resolutions regarding the delegation of city council authority to the city manager and to the city attorney.”

Presumably, and based on their comments at the legislative session, City Manager Mark Jinks and the council members who voted for approval of this docket item viewed these issues, which were considered seperately, as routine updates of existing authority. While that might be accurate, there were enough questions raised to give pause.

The first thing that seems off about the process is the docket number itself. When a docket item doesn’t have its own standalone whole number – like “platform 9 ¾” in the Harry Potter movies – it means something is different about it.

This item was added to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting after the original docket was produced late last week. In fact, the public learned of the change on Monday. What this means process-wise is that the public, and members of council, had very little time to research the item before it was considered.

The second odd aspect was the strong resistance to Mayor Allison Silberberg’s proposal to put this item on the docket for a public hearing.

Any item that concerns the “delegation of city council’s authority” surely warrants a close look and public comment.

Even though it was almost certainly not their intent, the last-minute inclusion of an item dealing with city council’s governing authority and the resistance to public input could be interpreted as an attempt to increase their own power by the city manager and city attorney.

Why would Jinks and council handle a matter like this in such a manner and unnecessarily open themselves to criticism? In tennis, this is called an “unforced error.”

Yes, this item contained relatively small changes to authority that council had apparently delegated many years ago. However, the passage of time since the subject has been discussed seems to us an argument for a closer look at the overall topic. That was the logic given when a task force examining parking in Alexandria was created.

Why not hold a full-blown conversation around what areas city council should be delegating to the city manager and what duties over which council should keep full control? Isn’t that better than a rote delegation of authority that might be better off in the hands of our city’s elected officials?

The city manager/city council system of governance is an odd arrangement anyway, in which the appointed official – the city manager – controls the city’s operational apparatus while the elected officials serve as a legislative body. And yet it’s our elected officials who are out in public, hearing complaints and concerns that are often beyond their ability to fix.

Even in the legislative realm, many to most decisions that council makes are formed by advice from city staff or recommendations made by task forces that are appointed by the city manager. This vast control by unelected officials further diminishes the input that Alexandria residents have on decisions taken by their local government.

More resident input is better than less. And city council should never further delegate any of its authority without first hearing from the public.

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