The past week taught me two new lessons about the Springfield City Council: First, never make predictions, as I did in the previous Aldermania, because these characters are more creative than a boatload of buskers. That lesson is related to the second, which is to never erase a recording of a City Council meeting. Because not only is it impossible to predict what these alderfolk might do in the future; it can be equally challenging to comprehend what they did just last week -- even if you saw it with your own eyes and heard it with your own ears and relived it by listening to your own tape.
On Feb. 18, the council held a much-anticipated "special meeting" to vote on the budget. The meeting was to be the capper to weeks of budget hearings, a parade of PowerPoint presentations and reams of spreadsheets, all focused on how to mend the huge hole in the bottom line that would, if not plugged, necessitate wholesale layoffs of police officers and firefighters. Most council members had already conceded that the some type of tax increase was needed; the only real squabble remaining was which tax to hike and by how much. With our paper going to press at the exact time this meeting started (around 5:30 p.m.), I decided to have some fun and write a column predicting what the council would do.
My predictions were at least half right. First, I predicted the final vote would not happen that night. As it turned out, there was a vote, but on only half of the budget equation: The council voted 6-4 to approve the spending portion, but delayed consideration of the tax increase necessary to fund it. Mayor Tim Davlin himself proposed this delay, saying it should be "hashed out" by the council's Finance Committee. This promise proved to be poppycock, but I'll explain that later.
Secondly, I predicted that Davlin would endorse the tax hike proposed by Ward 4 Alderman Chuck Redpath. And in fact, the mayor not only endorsed Redpath's proposal, he presented it with a budget amendment and co-sponsored the package with Redpath and Ward 9 Alderman Tom Selinger. The expenditures portion of their proposal is the budget the council passed that night.
If I were smart, I would have also predicted that Davlin's proposal would arrive hot off the Xerox machine at the very last minute, as has become his tradition. In fact, the time-stamp on his budget amendment showed it was printed at 5:39, which is about the time most aldermen got their first look at his proposal. City departmental directors and members of the media didn't get copies until after the meeting adjourned shortly before 9 p.m.
But I would have to be smart plus creative plus cynical to have forecast how clever these aldermen could be. And this is where we get to that second lesson, about the tape.
When Davlin introduced his budget proposal, he emphasized that he wouldn't ask the council to vote on the tax hike that night because "we'd be cramming it down people's throats," he said. Instead, he promised to let it "go through the regular budget process, [which is] to go to the Finance Committee" and then on to the full council for final approval on March 2.
He mentioned the Finance Committee a couple more times, saying, "I think we then hash it out at the Finance Committee. . ." and ". . . we deal with that at Finance."
Redpath also mentioned the Finance Committee. "The only reason I proposed, or we thought about holding that [tax increase] off was to give time for the Finance Committee and everyone else to work out the details," Redpath said.
During a subsequent exchange with Ward 10 Alderman Bruce Strom about the wisdom of adopting an out-of-balance budget and whether or not a sunset provision was needed, Redpath heard the phrase echoed by Strom and repeated it back: "What I heard you say is that we needed to deal with it in Finance, so that we could figure out how to make it work," Strom said. Redpath responded, ". . . so if it gets to that point in the Finance Committee. . . that's the way it happens."
Not surprisingly, there was a bigger-than-usual turnout at the next Finance Committee meeting, on Feb. 24. Three extra aldermen and a camera crew from Channel 20 all showed up expecting a debate on the proposed sales tax ordinance. Imagine how silly they felt when they discovered they were at the wrong committee meeting. The Finance Committee couldn't discuss the tax increase, because it had been assigned to the Public Affairs & Public Safety committee instead.
The fact that the Finance Committee just happens to be controlled by Republicans while the Public Affairs committee just happens to be controlled by Democrats is both coincidental and irrelevant because -- as we all know -- the City Council is officially non-partisan.
What's surprising is that no one corrected this misperception at the Feb. 18 council meeting. After all, the decision on which ordinance goes where is made by the Chairman of the Public Affairs committee -- Chuck Redpath. He had made the assignment himself just two nights earlier, assigning his own ordinance to his own committee.
Asked about this oversight, Redpath had no comment for Illinois Times. However, he did call Sam Madonia's WFMB-AM talk show the next morning to assure listeners there is absolutely nothing fishy going on. And to prove it, Redpath and Selinger along with Ward 3 Alderman Frank Kunz have called another Special Meeting to vote on the tax increase for Monday, March 1. They're all Democrats, like Davlin -- not that it matters.
Proponents of the "nothing fishy" scenario point out that in the long run, the committee assignment makes no difference. Neither committee could discuss the tax hike since all funding proposals had been tabled on Feb. 18 by the full council (on a motion made and seconded by Democrats -- not that it matters -- immediately after the budget passed), so that only the full council could bring these ordinances out again.
Everyone also agrees that no matter which committee the tax hike went to, it would ultimately be debated by the full council.
It takes a real schemer to envision what might have happened if the ordinance had gone untabled to the five-member Finance Committee, which just happens to be dominated by three Republicans who voted against Davlin's budget. I'm not that caliber schemer. But what I hear is that they could have tabled it in committee, which would have required eight council votes to bring it out.
If there was ever a plot to do that, it didn't play out. Two of the Republicans on the Finance Committee didn't even attend the meeting. Ward 7 Alderwoman Judy Yeager was still sick with pneumonia; Ward 8 Alderman Irv Smith was out of town.
Ward 2 Alderman Frank McNeil, who chairs the Finance Committee, still believes the ordinance is in his committee and says he would never allow things to get that nasty. "It could've been pretty ugly," he says. "But I run a better committee, what can I say?"
The one Republican who voted in favor of the mayor's budget was Ward 1 Alderman Frank Edwards. But after showing up for the Finance Committee meeting only to discover the tax hike was elsewhere, Edwards was wishing he could retract his vote.
"I voted based on what the mayor said, and now it's a huge mess," Edwards says. "I took him at his word. I guess that'll be the last time I do that."