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City's new day turns ugly

City Sage

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It wasn't the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn't get along well with others. — Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

To the unfortunates forced by duty or self-interest to sit through the Sept. 24 City Council meeting, it was clear that the descendants of "the people who didn't get along well with others" were sitting at the Council dais ... or maybe holed up in Mayor Steve Bach's office.

Such anger! Such hurt feelings! Such certainty that the mean old mayor and his mean young city attorney were disrespecting the mighty and powerful City Council! City Attorney Chris Melcher seems like an unlikely point man in the increasingly bitter confrontation between Council and the mayor. He's soft-spoken, amiable, unpretentious and capably defends positions and practices that infuriate every member of Council.

In a petty display of pique, they reduced Melcher's pay from $187,529 to its original level of $183,736, taking away a modest pay increase awarded by Bach last year. Melcher received the news with smiling equanimity. He might have seen Council's action as a symbol of impotent rebellion, like throwing rocks at a tank.

Council's animus toward Mayor Bach and Melcher goes back to 2011, when city voters elected Bach over Richard Skorman by 57 to 43 percent, while electing newbies Lisa Czelatdko, Angela Dougan, Tim Leigh, Merv Bennett, Brandy Williams and Val Snider to Council.

It was a new day — remember? Mayor and Council pledged to work together harmoniously. They were ready to tackle problems that had been ignored or swept under the rug for years. Goodbye, darkened streetlights and unwatered parks! Hello, efficient government!

They turned on the streetlights and watered the parks, and even made city government slightly more efficient — but those accomplishments were diminished by the war between the legislative and executive branches.

Bach moved quickly and aggressively to seize the reins of power — to be, in fact as well as name, the city's strong mayor. He hired senior managers with little or no public-sector experience to run the city, and made it very clear to Council and the media that he was in charge.

Ignored or stymied by the administration, Councilors spent uncounted hours dealing with issues surrounding marijuana, the Martin Drake Power Plant, Neumann Systems Group, oil and gas regulations, and solar gardens. Disputes with Bach flared up regularly as then-Council President Scott Hente and President Pro Tem Jan Martin tried to level the playing field.

They couldn't do it. Accusations that Melcher wouldn't respond to their requests, or that he simply reiterated the administration's position instead of giving them unbiased legal advice, went nowhere. Dissatisfied with a Council they perceived as noisy and dysfunctional, voters tossed out incumbents Leigh, Dougan, Williams and Bernie Herpin. Hente was term-limited and Czeladtko declined to run again, so six more newbies joined Council.

The rookies took command. Heeding Council President Keith King's dubious claim that voters actually wanted a strong Council as well as a strong mayor, the new group worked to seize power. Relations between mayor and Council worsened week by week, culminating in the Sept. 24 debacle.

Where do we go from here? Yesterday's Council is gone forever, thanks to the voter-approved "Lionel Rivera Amendment" to the charter, giving district reps a 6-3 majority. Like the U.S. House of Representatives, a parochial Council thinks it ought to run things — and like the House, this group may be in position to shut it down if the executive doesn't bow to its demands.

Bach will present the city budget Monday, Oct. 7, perhaps kicking off a month of confrontation and high drama. A Council united against Bach and all of his works is a veto-proof Council, one that can write its own budget. Will they use the power of the purse to restructure city government and get rid of Melcher? Will they try to make the strong mayor into a weak sister?

We're looking at a real-life Breaking Bad. And Bach, like Walter White, may be a whole lot tougher and nastier than Council imagines, if his recent tirade on local radio is any indication. We could see Mayor Bach and Council in court, each asserting power over the other.

And guess who'd pay the legal fees? That would be us...

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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