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July 3, 2007

Representin’ : Can we get a Kumbaya?

The Metro Council passed the budget, Lord, kumbaya The Metro Council passed the budget, Lord, kumbaya The Metro Council passed the budget, Lord, kumbaya O Lord, kumbaya                    —Unknown, 2007 The Metro Council commenced its annual rite of passage last week, passing a budget that closely resembled the one proposed by Mayor Jerry Abramson about a month ago. Apparently everything was hunky-dory at chambers Thursday — that often happens at the end of the month-long slog that is budget negotiations. We’re talking $810 million this year, a lot of coins tossed, and our representatives like to make sure it is all going to the right places, stress be damned. Good for them. Such conviviality never lasts, of course. But this behavior comes at an odd time of possible transition for the council, which — in a remarkable stroke of irony — is right now fighting with itself to create a working circumstance some believe will keep it from fighting with itself so much. Not everybody believes that. There is an attempt under way, led by president Rick Blackwell, D-12, and buoyed by seven other Democrats, to install a non-partisan staff at the council, a maneuver Blackwell says would eliminate three jobs and save $290 million or so in the council’s budget, which is submitted annually by the president and approved by the mayor. The other stated goal of the initiative: get over some partisan bickering and enable the two parties to work in tandem more cleanly, more often. By a super-slim margin at Thursday’s afternoon caucus meeting, Democrats voted to lead by example, as it were, shifting their four-member caucus staff to the beck and call of the whole Council. The 8-7 vote, announced in a press release from Blackwell’s office that hit my inbox at 10:59 p.m. Thursday, split the party nearly down the middle. Blackwell told me Monday he’s gotten a lot more pushback on this than he expected. Though almost half the Democrats don’t want it, pushback is coming from the Republican Party, too. Kevin Kramer, R-11, who immediately preceded Blackwell as council president and was well regarded in that role for his attempts to break down partisan divides, said creating a common staff will do nothing to eliminate partisanship. Rather, he said it would unfairly empower the majority of the majority party — because the president would control the staff and the majority party could control the message through the one or two “common” PR people, jobs that currently require crafting a public message that supports a particular party.The staffing situation among the caucuses breaks down as such: • Democrats have a caucus director, a caucus communications director, a budget analyst and a research analyst. • Republicans have a caucus director (who also essentially serves as its communications director), a deputy caucus director and a budget analyst. Blackwell said that in a common staff, the caucus director position would be eliminated. There would be one or two PR people, and the rest isn’t totally clear yet. I asked him about the importance of caucus staffs crafting a message and philosophy for their party. “If you put it in front of the voters, I really think that’s what people expect us to do,” Blackwell said of trimming the two staffs down to one. “I think they expect the council members to be the ones deciding priorities and so on.”Kramer rebuked that point. “If I’m a council member and I need research done, I’m not going to have time — I’m a full-time teacher,” he said. Most council members have other jobs. “The council is not set up to have each of us become researchers.”Kramer also said flatly that Republicans would not back the measure, which needs an ordinance passed by the full council to take effect. Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, plans to propose that within the month. It would fund caucus staffs through Aug. 31. Then a consultant would be brought in to determine where to place the formerly partisan staffers. Meanwhile, in a well-timed act of togetherness worthy of a Cameron Crowe flick, all 11 council Republicans pooled their $100,000 of individual discretionary funds to pay for community projects that had not found their way into the Mayor’s budget. Democrats have never done such a thing.All together now … Kumbaya! Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com