published Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Contractual issue remains separate, city officials say


by Cliff Hightower
Audio clip

Mayor Ron Littlefield

Despite dealing Mayor Ron Littlefield a political setback on police Chief Freeman Cooper’s proposed contract, City Council members said Wednesday the vote is not an indication of fallout for the mayor on future votes.

And that includes his politically charged proposal for a possible property tax increase to help the city climb out of its financial hole.

“Each issue stands on its own merit,” said Council Chairman Jack Benson.

The mayor also said he isn’t worried about issues he may bring to the council.

“I don’t have any continuing concern,” Mr. Littlefield said, sitting in his office Wednesday afternoon.

The City Council voted 6-2 with one abstention Tuesday night to reject the mayor’s proposed contract to install retiring police Chief Cooper as the city’s top cop for three more years.

Mr. Benson said Wednesday that the vote on Chief Cooper’s contract will not reflect on any future votes, just as the council’s votes on previous issues do not reflect on what it decided Tuesday.

But over the last year, since the new council was sworn in — with four brand-new members — there has been a growing list of council-generated defeats or retreats for the Littlefield administration.

Just weeks ago, the administration backtracked on raising its water quality, or stormwater, fees for nonresidential users such as businesses, churches and nonprofit agencies. The rate was dropped after the City Council commissioned an independent committee to examine whether it could be lowered.

Last summer, the City Council was able to find extra money in the budget after the mayor talked about getting rid of take-home cars for city employees or making them pay for the privilege. Police officers, many of whom drive their cars home and to part-time security jobs, protested the move, saying they couldn’t afford to pay.

After years of sharing a financial auditor with the mayor’s office, the council formed its own audit committee last year and hired its own auditor to put itself in line with the City Charter.

Several council members said this week they see their jobs and responsibilities as those of an independent body that doesn’t just rubber-stamp what the mayor proposes. But Councilman Andraé McGary reiterated Wednesday that a “no” vote is not to be taken as “against the mayor.”

“We are a checks and balances (panel),” he said. “I refuse to get personal in politics.”

Some council members said one issue that hurt the mayor in the Chief Cooper controversy was waiting so long to alert the council about the pending resignation of the chief and his proposal for a new contract.

Mr. Littlefield received a letter from Chief Cooper about the resignation on March 1, but he did not tell council members until March 22. The chief planned to resign on March 31.

“It hurt him,” Mr. Benson said. “It left the impression that he sprung it on us.”

Mr. Littlefield said he did that for a reason. The council was voting on whether to decrease the water quality, or stormwater, rate at the time, he said.

“People forget they were dealing with another issue,” he said.

Mr. Littlefield said that, from past experience, he knew that a City Council can handle only so many controversial items and he did not want the council members to become too overburdened.

“I knew it wouldn’t be popular; I knew it would be misunderstood,” he said.

Right now, his biggest plans call for trying to get city and county governments and services consolidated, he said. Councilwoman Carol Berz reiterated Wednesday that the vote over Chief Cooper’s contract does not reflect the overall attitude of the council about that move.

For months, most City Council members publicly have expressed strong interest in merging governments.

“I don’t think it calls into question about consolidation,” Dr. Berz said.

With the City Council now possibly involved in some type of search for a new police chief, some council members expressed Wednesday how they see their role in that process.

Mr. McGary and Councilman Russell Gilbert said they would like to interview the mayor’s choice, much like the U.S. Congress confirms the president’s candidates for the Supreme Court.

The council “thinks independently,” Mr. Gilbert said, and members want to find a person to lead the police department who is an independent thinker. It is part of the checks-and-balances system in city government, he said.

“That’s not called micromanagement,” Mr. Gilbert said.

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