Council borrows trouble by ignoring voters
Marion’s new city administrator got his first taste of the city’s often deceptive politics Monday while watching council members, some of them not understanding what they were voting for, agree on a split vote to make it far more difficult for taxpayers to have a voice before the city goes head over heels into debt.
Despite a mountain of misdirecting rhetoric from the mayor, city administrator, and bond counsel, who stands to make considerable commission on the deal, Monday night’s vote had little to do with finishing the city’s industrial park or fixing the city’s streets or even surpassing the city’s statutory limit on indebtedness.
What it did was make it far easier for bond firms — now and in countless future deals — to profit from the city by substantially curtailing taxpayers’ right to vote before a whole generation of them is saddled with debt.
Instead, taxpayers will get just 30 days — half the time normally allowed for charter ordinances that invalidate state law — to petition to restore their right to vote on new borrowing. The proposal also sets what appears to be a much higher standard for the number of signatures required on such petitions, perhaps tripling the number needed.
It’s as if local officials with whom outside agents deal have “SUCKER” stenciled on their foreheads.
Discussion before the vote appeared intentionally to have been shifted away from issues being voted on and onto a discussion of needed improvements to city streets and completion of industrial park streets, which a sales tax, approved by voters nearly two decades ago, was meant to handle before it was diverted to other purposes.
Council members continually were told that failing to pass a proposed charter ordinance curtailing taxpayers’ rights would delay a litany of projects presented by the city administrator — who, under terms of the ordinance, would be allowed to present such lists rather than lists being required by state law to come from a city engineer.
If funding for these projects were the real goal Monday, a quick, easy, and inexpensive mechanism would have allowed a specific borrowing plan to be presented to voters for their approval in November.
Instead, council members chose a more devious route that they were warned might actually delay the availability of money for needed projects.
Under state law, voters now will have 60 days to gather signatures of 10% of the people who voted in the last city election — about 40 signatures total — to require that the question of curtailing taxpayers’ rights be submitted to an election.
Council members were warned that a petition doing so already is being drafted. If it’s successful — and it undoubtedly will be — that means that instead of voting in November on whether to authorize the borrowing, voters will vote in November on whether to approve curtailing their rights so the borrowing could be implemented without their approval.
It then would be at least 30 days after that before any money could be borrowed — assuming no petition is passed challenging that borrowing and requiring a costly additional election.
If the projects truly are something the public wants, voters undoubtedly would approve them in a straight-up election. But instead of providing specifics about what the money actually would be used for, the council sought to curtail voters’ rights while still pondering a huge list of projects, many of which have nothing to do with repairing streets or finishing the industrial park.
Unless voters petition and vote to reject the charter ordinance approved Monday night, council members could at any time in the future decide to divert money away from things they seemed to promise Monday and toward other pet projects, even projects not already on the list, all without voter approval.
Worse yet, the ordinance may have been enacted accidentally. At least one council member who said before the meeting that he was opposed said afterward that he didn’t understand what he was voting on when he cast the deciding vote in favor of the charter ordinance.
When petitioners come to you asking whether you want a chance to have your voice be heard on city borrowing, sign their petition and require an election at which you can vote against giving up your right to vote before the city incurs debt, especially if the debt exceeds statutory limits on city borrowing.
When future borrowing is proposed, insist that any projects to be paid for by generational borrowing be clearly and specifically spelled out so taxpayers can be sure they actually will get what we are willing to sacrifice for.
If that means requiring that revenue from the industrial park’s 0.75% sales tax should be dedicated to paying for bonds finishing the industrial park so that cost of the largely disused park can’t be back-doored onto property taxes or utility rates, make sure such language is specifically included in the proposal.
Forcing taxpayers to jump through hoops to claim their right to vote is an insult to democracy. Attaching it to a blank check about which projects to pay for suggests that voters may need to circulate petitions asking for more than just the right to vote. If council members distrust the public so much that they want to curtail our right to vote, why should the public trust them?
What’s next? Declaring that mayors have lifetime terms unless voters pass petitions demanding an election? The issue really is no different. Surrender your right to vote on one thing and you might as well surrender it on other things, as well.
— ERIC MEYER