Sunday, November 3, 2013

Don't increase the Amarillo City Commission's powers -- reject charter changes

Tuesday is Election Day.

With no candidate on the ballot you’d think that this isn't an unimportant election with no significance for the future of the city of Amarillo. If you think that, you’re wrong. This election is more important than the last one at which we elected people to the City Commission.

Why?

Because the City Commission is asking voters for approval to “update” the 100-year-old City Charter. To modernize it, they say. Be careful. Propositions 11 through 21 would concentrate the power of the commission further and make it harder for the citizenry to buck the commission. They are designed to make it more difficult to petition the commission and to run for mayor. Please go to the page on the city website to look at the proposed changes to the charter. Some are relatively harmless.

If you’ve followed the city’s business as closely has I have, you will understand why these changes should be rejected. The City Commission’s efforts to “revitalize” downtown Amarillo started with a bad premise and became a runaway train. Instead of asking for a bond issue to renovate the Civic Center, something that would have passed with little controversy because the venue’s deficits are obvious, the commission went down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. Who knows what the commissioners, past and present, were smokin‛, drinkin‛ or chewin‛ to come up with third-rate developer Wallace Bajjali and a $113 million package for a convention center hotel, parking garage and baseball park to cure whatever woes they thought needed curing.

If people want some key pieces of information, I’ve gone back to the original video of a Nov. 16, 2010 City Commission work session. The commission’s delay in awarding a contract to Wallace Bajjali Development Partners came at that meeting. The Amarillo Independent had just broken the story on Wallace Bajjali’s troubled history — I’ve retrieved it from The Amarillo Independent’s former website backup — and posted it here. The story, which then-Mayor Debra McCartt acknowledged during the meeting, forced commissioners to step back from the slam-dunk that Amarillo Globe-News Publisher Les Simpson clearly wanted. At the time, Simpson was president of the Downtown Amarillo Inc. board — a clear conflict if one subscribes to the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics.

Simpson, former Commissioner Ron Boyd and Commissioner Brian Eades statements at that work session show why the commission hasn’t been held accountable and why those changes to the charter shouldn’t occur. Let’s look at those:

· At about 2½ minutes into the meeting, after explaining that Wallace Bajjali was recruited to Amarillo, Simpson said, “… I know the feeling from Wallace Bajjali is any proposal they would ask you to consider would be one in which they would not get any payment for projects unless those projects were completed. They come prepared to put some skin in the game.”

But two years ago and without any progress, the City Commission approved paying almost $1 million to the developers.

That’s a broken promise.

· At that same meeting, a little past 9½ minutes into the video, Boyd clearly implied that the citizens would get to vote on the downtown proposal. The commission went forward without giving Amarillo’s voters a chance to formally endorse this plan. There was a good reason, of course. McCartt and others expressed concern they couldn’t get the votes.

That’s another broken promise.

· David Wallace, on Nov. 9, 2010, had pitched the City Commission. His bravado about being able to bring financing to the project hasn’t panned out. Instead, as evidence that the “skin in the game” may be the city’s taxpayers, not Wallace Bajjali’s, in a well-spun presentation, we learned last week that the developers couldn’t even put together the hotel deal they said they could as promised in the Globe-News’ Nov. 2, 2009 story cited above. By all accounts, the city finessed a deadline for the developers using the Amarillo Government Corp. to front for the developer’s failure.

That’s another broken promise.

Let’s also not forget how quickly the City Commission moved on acquiring the old Santa Fe depot, with little public notice. The same holds true with the bond issue for the Amarillo Recreation Complex. In these two cases, my issue isn’t my position on those matters. It’s the lack of the city’s transparency and notice in moving on them.

I could reach back to 2008 when the commissioners acted with thoughtless abandon in adopting design standards for downtown while treating those who object with shoddy disdain — a pattern that continues to this day for anyone who dares question the commission. And, I could cite some other actions the commissioners pushed through based on false and faulty information. The two most glaring that come to mind is the over-reaching hands-free cell phone ordinance and the red light camera program.

Don’t get me wrong, I think texting and driving is reprehensible and should be barred. I also think it’s stupid to talk on one’s cell phone without a hand’s-free device. But the commission knowingly passed this measure on the basis of the chairwoman of the Traffic Commission misrepresenting the traffic group’s findings in its “extensive” study of the issue. It kind of reminds me of the run up to the war in Iraq when the Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction. As for the red light cameras, none of the data posited by the Amarillo Globe-News or other outlets used proper statistical techniques such as used by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Under these circumstances, it’s my belief we need more than an election every two years to impose checks and balances on city government. The proposed changes to the City Charter move in exactly the opposite direction needed. Please vote against these changes in the charter.

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