June 19, 2013 10:27:44 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
In a delicious bit of irony, Lavonne Harris of the NAACP went before the Columbus City Council to ask that the council use its influence in demanding more transparency from the Columbus Municipal School Board of Trustees.
Monday night the CMSD board met in executive session for four-and-a-half hours before emerging with news that it had fired its schools superintendent, Dr. Martha Liddell. Board President Currie Fisher did not announce the reason for the firing, which appeared to be Harris' primary point of contention.
Now, Liddell's firing hardly rates as one of the great mysteries of our time. The details of the superintendent's misconduct has been diligently reported in this newspaper for weeks now. Even so, a response from the CMSD seems entirely appropriate.
Council members and Mayor Robert Smith were predictably "disturbed" by the lack of transparency, of course. They assured the audience that there is probably nothing in the world the mayor and council like better than transparency.
Unless, of course, you count pay raises. Three out of five councilmen like pay raises an awful lot, the record will show.
But aside from pay raises, transparency is one of their very favorite things. I would not be surprised at all if councilmen Joseph Mickens, Gene Taylor and Kabir Karriem all had tattoos of the word "transparency." Of course, they would have to roll up their sleeves to show it to you.
The frowning council assured Harris that they planned to talk to the CMSD board members and urge them to be more transparent.
At that point, I was certain that the proceedings would have to be delayed until the audience's laughter subsided.
Oddly, the irony was lost of those who attended the council meeting, though.
Harris' plea for transparency came 10 minutes after the council had demonstrated its own egregious lack of transparency on the subject of pay raises for the city council.
For a while, there has been some informal talk of raising council members' pay. Tuesday's meeting represented the last opportunity to pass such a pay raise. Had the council not taken up the matter, it could not have brought the pay raise issue to a vote for another four years.
Anticipating that pay raises might, indeed, be added to the agenda at the last moment, Dispatch reporter Nathan Gregory made calls to some council members on Monday. Ward 2 councilman Joseph Mickens did not return Gregory's calls, which is not surprising given what we know now.
Council members Charlie Box, Gene Taylor and Kabir Karriem all said they had no reason to believe that pay raises would be on the agenda. Karriem called it a "moot issue."
Well, it didn't take long for it to get "un-mooted."
As the council was going over the agenda, the mayor and Mickens put their heads together and exchanged a few whispered words. The mayor then announced that pay raises would be added to the agenda.
How's that for transparency?
Later, the council voted, 3-2, to raise the council's pay from $17,500 to $21,500, effective July 1. Mickens, Taylor and "Mr. Moot" Karriem, who seconded Mickens' motion, voted for the pay raise. Bill Gavin and Charlie Box voted against the pay raise.
It was a pretty lame exercise in keeping a controversial subject on the low-down until the last possible moment. If the council was going to consider giving itself a raise, it should have had enough integrity to share that information in a timely manner with the people who will be paying for that raise. If the item had been on the agenda, there's a chance that taxpayers may have had a chance to speak before the council on the subject. Apparently, Mr. Mickens does not care to hear what the taxpayers have to say on this matter.
What is surprising is the mayor's complicity in this back-door ploy. It's hard to understand since he didn't stand to profit from it personally. Perhaps, it was simply a means of maintaining cordial relations with the council.
If that's the case, the costs may ultimately outweigh the benefits.
During his successful campaign for reelection, the mayor alluded to the distinct possibility that city taxes will need to go up, and probably soon. With sales tax revenues running well short of anticipated, higher taxes seem more a likelihood than a possibility.
When that discussion ensues, it is unlikely that taxpayers will have forgotten that the council voted itself a 23-percent raise to $21,500.
Taxpayers might also note that Starkville, with a population comparable to Columbus, pays its aldermen $12,000 per year (it will go up to $15,000 in 2015). Its millage is less than half that of Columbus; its sales tax revenue year-to-date is less than a third of the amount Columbus brings in each year. So you can see that our council is doing a bang-up job and deserves to be handsomely rewarded.
Clearly, the idea for a tax hike already figured to be a tough sell for Columbus residents. Sneaking around to jack up the council's pay isn't going to help.
Slipping a pay raise into the agenda during the course of the council meeting was a cowardly move.
In fact, it was a transparently cowardly move.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]