City council vote sparks heated debate

City council vote sparks heated debate

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

A city council discussion concerning delegating certain tasks to the city manager and the city attorney at Tuesday’s legislative meeting resulted in infighting between Mayor Allison Silberberg and other members of council.

 Council was tasked with voting on two separate resolutions at its legislative meeting.

The first resolution proposed city council delegate the authority to “approve and execute, on behalf of the city, all contracts and other forms of agreements in which the city is a party other than those whose approval city council has delegated to the purchasing agent or has reserved to itself.”

The second resolution proposed city council increase the monetary threshold of settlements that the city attorney can make from $10,000 to $50,000.

Assistant City Attorney Joanna Anderson, who was present at the meeting to answer questions, and City Manager Mark Jinks said the resolution regarding the city manager was clarifying language and put into effect a practice that’s already existed since at least 1988, the last time the resolutions were altered.

“It basically doesn’t change the city manager’s authority… It just cleans up the language based on long-standing city practices,” Jinks said.

Silberberg said she still had outstanding questions on council’s ability to delegate the abilities in question, an argument she based on two emails council had received from members of the public, in particular an email from Barbara Beach, an Alexandria lawyer.

“We did receive at least two emails from people who are very involved in legal matters, raising some questions for us to consider. I thought they were well-taken,” Silberberg said.

Anderson said the resolution was allowed according to the city charter and said, in addition, that the resolution includes a provision that states city council reserves any ability required by law to be kept by council.

“The charter allows for city council to delegate all things in these resolutions to the city manager and the city attorney respectively in the different resolutions and anything that is being delegated is allowed to be delegated through the charter,” Anderson said at the meeting.

 Silberberg also proposed waiting on a decision on both items until city council’s next public hearing on Jan. 20.

 “…We haven’t had time yet to engage the public in this process at all. As far as I’m concerned, it would make sense to docket it for public hearing and have a conversation,” Silberberg said.

Other city councilors, however, argued that the resolution should be approved immediately. Councilor John Chapman said approving the city manager resolution would ultimately prevent a worst case scenario.

“In regards to the delineation of the city manager’s duties, my wish is to go ahead and move forward voting on this,” Chapman said. “With a number of localities, we hear about horror stories all the time of public officials getting involved with contracts.” “This puts a wall between us, as elected officials, and the actual work of purchasing agents and the city manager. I do not want to wait on that,” Chapman said.

 Councilor Paul Smedberg said the resolutions should be viewed as two different issues. While in favor of the city manager resolution, he said the resolution to increase the monetary threshold of settlements the city attorney can approve was an “outright change.”

“It’s not like we have four or five [settlements] a month and it’s taking time … Costs have increased, things have changed, so you might want to consider it, but I have to say, over the years, in my experience, I have found it interesting I have learned things about department operations and things that are going on that have been helpful and I found some of the questions or conversations have been constructive and helpful conversations overall,” Smedberg said.

In response to concerns raised, Jinks said “deeds of consequence” will still go in front of city council and the language, ultimately, wouldn’t change much.

“The ability to sign easements; this isn’t something new. This hasn’t gone to city council since at least 1988, if not before,” Jinks said. “This is just clarifying language and just putting into place what’s been in practice for decades. It doesn’t change the authority of the city manager one iota.”

City council voted to approve the city manager resolution 6-1, with Silberberg dissenting, and approved the city attorney resolution 5-2, with Silberberg and Smedberg dissenting. City council also approved an addendum to the resolution that requires the city attorney to update council on settlements semi-annually.

Beach, whose email was referenced in the council meeting, said she was disappointed by council’s vote.

“The bottom line for me is, frankly, these people are elected to make decisions on what cases are settled, to be aware of what’s going on in the city. A report every six months doesn’t tell you who’s embezzling, who’s doing sexual discrimination, who’s involved in things that council should be involved in,” Beach said. “I’ve never had a client that didn’t make the final decision on what was settled.”