Maybe Bossier City councilors will have a better idea what they put city residents through after their rare rejection of an agenda item.
For the uninitiated, the plenary body of America’s Biggest Small Town has a long history of dispensing with its business in rapid-fire fashion, acting as if its members park their cars at meters which only accept up to an hour’s worth of coinage. Except for the occasional blindsided vendor or tearful appellant to an animal control order voicing complaints at times when the public is allowed to speak, or on some matters that feature almost always brief prefatory information conveyed by a member of the Republican mayor Lo Walker administration, little slows the bullet train of business serenaded by the background drone of “moved, seconded, vote, motion passes.”
Thusly, this week the Council took just a couple of minutes to all-but dispose of the city’s $60 million 2021 budget, in all its forms, in unanimous fashion. This exercise featured no debate or public comment, and councilors even found the effort to avoid a rubber-stamp quality to it all too much, as after approving the general fund budget they slammed the other 18 items together into one for consideration. They spent half that time joking about a loud computer update notification.
Of course, how could it be otherwise, when the general public had no easy access to what’s in the budget? For example, at the previous meeting councilors were told that repeated successes in scoring grant money from the state, about $5 million worth, to offset tax revenue decreases from restrictions on the economy to combat the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic meant not only would the city avoid budget belt-tightening, but also would push money into 2021 (the federal money that this originated as was supposed to apply only through the end of the year) and still leave about $1 million unallocated. Yet no documentation about that was provided widely to the public.
City ordinance allows citizens to trek to City Hall to see copies of proposals at least a week before these come up for a vote. In the pandemic era, where Democrat Councilor Jeff Darby doesn’t even show up for meetings but beforehand receives his materials electronically so he can phone in during meetings, citizens aren’t given the same option. As a result, next to nobody in the public can get access to what should be easily obtainable and critically needed publicly-available information.
And it hardly would take any effort. Bossier City and Shreveport councils operate off the same web-based information software. Shreveport council agendas not only include links to information about every agenda item on which a vote at some point may occur, but its site also has for each meeting a vessel in which to upload a meeting “packet,” which contains all of that information. For its budget last year, that meeting’s packet had around 75 pages of budgetary documentation anybody could view before the Council convened.
On its site, Bossier City has the same “packet” possibility in the dropdown box for each meeting. These always come up blank. Does it really take all that much effort to upload the same information councilors get?
The next day, citizens did get a peek at the budget – absent details the minor amendment – when the Council posted its minutes. But presenting only the wording of the ordinances came up a day late and a dollar short; these don’t give any comparative background to last year’s budget and any changes year-over-year, nor even divulges cursory explanations of revenues and expenditures.
However, after encountering one subsequent agenda item, maybe they’ll empathize with the in-the-dark public. The Red River Waterway Commission, Shreveport, and Bossier City among their executives negotiated a cooperative endeavor agreement to accept funding for, installation of, and maintenance of lighting covering the Long-Allen (“Texas Street”) Bridge spanning the Red River between the two cities. This appeared on the agenda, but councilors received no information from the Walker Administration about it prior to the meeting.
(Had they been a bit more on the ball, Bossier councilors could have accessed the entire CEA that the Shreveport City Council had posted publicly before its 9/18 meeting. So much for counting coup on Shreveport.)
City Chief Administrative Officer Pam Glorioso seemed taken aback when multiple councilors began complaining they hardly knew anything about the project, and what little they did know made them wary that the city would be put on the hook for maintenance costs of unknown size. Twice she said volunteered to make a presentation about it – which she hadn’t had prepared for this since no money immediately would go out the door, she said – if councilors would delay the vote, as if they were children who needed some parental explaining to figure out the right thing to do. Instead, they bounced it (unanimously, as is their voting habit), and told Glorioso to come up with something else.
Having the shoe on the other foot should spur the Council to start making it easier on the public to become informed about city doings. Whether it will is another matter.