The City of Salem is going about things all wrong. In fact, the city is governing in reverse order, ignoring its own ordinances and creating a mess of things.
City officials – elected and administration – for too long have ignored or downplayed the role the public is supposed to have in the decision-making process when it comes to running the city. From unfilled committee positions to a lack of committee meetings, the role of citizens in Salem government isn’t what it should be or what city ordinances require it to be.
“The value of independent advice and recommendations of boards, commissions and committees to the public decision-making process is of such significance that members of the board of aldermen should refrain from using their positions to influence the deliberations or outcomes of board, commission and committee proceedings,” according to Section 106.160 of city code.
The emphasis should be on “the value of independent advice and recommendations.” In other words, the mayor after the April election is to appoint quality, knowledgeable people to committees and boards, the aldermen approve the appointments and those committee members go about setting the course for city government. Ordinances spell out what committees are to do.
It isn’t working that way, and there is no better example than the disfunction of the utility committee or lack thereof. There are other examples, but today we will stick with the utility committee.
First of all, according to ordinance, the utility committee is supposed to take part in long-range planning; budget preparation; operation of all utility services, rate structures; street construction, maintenance and repair; conservation programs; and long-range utility policy making, according to city code.
That has not happened. The oversight, input and transparency that a utility committee and its meetings could have provided is likely why the utility billing mess you have read and heard about from November of 2019 through the 97-day utility bills citizens received last week not only occurred, but is still with us. This issue of lack of committee input has come up before.
The Salem News in a May, 2020 public records request asked for a list of all utility committee meetings that were held in 2019 and the first five months of 2020, along with the minutes of those meetings. There had been only one meeting, and that was held April 23, 2020. No minutes were taken, according to the response from the city.
So, during 2019 and almost half of 2020 the city put in an entirely new utility billing system, new meters and a myriad of other changes, and the utility committee never even met about it? Who set policy and made all those decisions?
To his credit, first-year alderman Shawn Bolerjack says he is committed to having regular utility committee meetings, which he chairs as of April. It is too late for that committee to prevent a utility billing mess that has led to stress, confusion, financial hardship and embarrassment for the citizens of Salem, but that kind of thinking is a start.
Here is how committees are supposed to work:
1) The committee meets, makes decisions and recommends policy.
2) The aldermen on the committee take those recommendations back to the full board for approval or perhaps tweaking.
3) The aldermen formalize the policy or decision, vote on it and pass it along to city staff to carry out.
Sounds simple enough. Sounds logical. Sounds like a good plan. Sounds like the sort of thing city codes call for. So, why are we doing this too often in reverse order, with city officials going to committees with a plan and asking for its blessing?
Salem aldermen are in charge. Ask them.
If aldermen say it will happen this way, it will happen this way. They have the law on their side and the power to make change.
The Salem News today is publishing the first in a series on committees that Salem ordinances call for. We want to let you know the name of the committee, who is on it and what the committee is supposed to do.
A related matter when it comes to city committees is who is on them. There are over 15,000 people who live in Dent County, and over two-thirds of them live outside the city limits. Many of those people work, shop and send their children to school and summer youth league sports in Salem, the point being we are all one community. I live four miles east of town, but when someone asks me where I’m from, I say Salem.
It makes no sense for the city of Salem when it names committees not to take advantage of the abilities that two-thirds of our community could bring to the table, be it to help set policy for parks and rec, capital improvements, finance or utilities. The elected aldermen and mayor – all required to be city residents – have the final say.
I’m sure there are times when committees are hard to fill with people who have expertise in the areas needed or don’t have a conflict of interest. And it is short-sighted to think our neighbors shouldn’t be able to make our community better, whether they live downtown or on a farm south of town.
None of the people I have talked to have found a city ordinance nor state statute that prevents any Dent County resident from serving on a city committee, and several elected and appointed officials have told me that, in light of the current problems facing the city, strengthening our committees and getting the city to function as it is supposed to function is a priority. They are not only looking into the roles committees are supposed to play, but allowing all of Dent County to take part.
We have a wonderful community full of dedicated and hard-working people who want the best for Salem and Dent County. We can pull out of this tailspin that has brought us nothing but arguments and embarrassment and turmoil. It is going to take some tough decisions and change by elected officials, and eventually, the path forward will be decided at the ballot box.