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It's time to focus

Jack Balshaw 1/15/2003


Our new City Council is installed and ready to get to work. My suggestion to them is, "Follow the money". Not just the expenditure of the money but what is being produced or committed to by the expenditure of that money.

Over the last several years the city has focused on developing extravagant plans for everything from bicycle lanes to the Central Petaluma Specific Plan for the revitalization of downtown. Never once have the costs or the sources of funds needed to implement these plans been discussed. The obsession over "perfect planning" has been accompanied by a total lack of concern with how these plans will be funded.

My personal feeling is that the pervious councils were more concerned with getting their "vision" of Petaluma locked into official development policy than they were with any schedule of implementation. Many might see this as a wise move but there is a negative impact in doing this. By creating and legislating a long-term development plan, future councils have their options closed in addressing existing and new problems.

Faced with a $147 million shortfall in money needed to fix our streets, the council needs to be regularly informed about how much more deficit could be added to the budget by the development of these elaborate plans, including some currently being considered in the new General Plan. Sort of like the first rule of holes, "When you're in one, stop digging".

The actual expenditure of money by the various city departments also needs to be monitored. This should not focus just on expenditures but also on how well the departments are doing the tasks included in their annual budget. There's a kind of easy way for the City Council to do this.

In a city I worked with in Pennsylvania many years ago, each council member was assigned oversight of one city department. By focusing this way, each council member became a minor expert on his assigned department's operation. They didn't have to spend hours reviewing ongoing operations; just a few minutes a week being briefed by the department head.

Such council assignments would be similar to our council member's appointments to the various commissions and committees. Because they couldn't direct any department's operation, just monitor it, this wouldn't conflict with our City Manager form of government. But it would provide the rest of the council with the informed opinion of one of their members when needed.

The mid-year budget review that is scheduled soon will also give the new members an opportunity to become familiar with the city's budgeting process and how departmental progress tracks with budget goals. This is no easy task. But seeing how, in the last election, the public held council members responsible for the state of the city, a task they must accept.

To follow the money it's necessary to understand the city's budget process. The presentation of the budget to the council annually seems to be more a game of confusion rather than enlightenment. The various sources of funds are casually mingled in the same budget line item. Despite the ability to color code funding sources, the council must ferret out the black on white details on their own.

The ability to lay out a clear budget document would be a great test of the city manager's skills. Whatever the council does, it shouldn't change city managers during the budget process.

If the City Council is able to follow the money they'll be in a much better position to direct the course of city affairs. A focus on city expenditures will result in more efficient government as well as minimize the ideological conflicts that have plagued past councils.


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