Although opposition to growth emerged as the issue driving last week’s election, incumbents on the City Council would be wise to recognize a deeper takeaway: Citizens are demanding integrity and professionalism in our city’s governance. This lesson should inform every decision that comes before the City Council in the coming days and months.
Question No. 1 on the ballot, to slightly amend the controlled-growth ordinance, started out with a big question mark concerning process. Originally the question was to be advisory, which means that if it passed the City Council could act on it or not, as it chose. But on the day the City Council was to vote on the measure, Mayor Rod Woodbury announced, without even warning all the council members, that he wanted the question to be a compulsory vote rather advisory, meaning a vote to pass would have the force of law. Even council member Peggy Leavitt, normally a supporter of such measures, balked at the sudden change — but not that much because she voted to put it on the ballot anyway.
Some of the council members knew in advance: Cam Walker, then mayor pro-tem and running for re-election, told me weeks ago that he had convinced the mayor to make the change.
Speaking with the enthusiasm of a policy wonk, he explained why he thought it was a good idea to make the ballot question mandatory. Like a true wonk he failed to see that regardless of whether an idea is good or not, regardless of whether it was made with good intentions or not, when sudden changes of this sort are made, they look dirty.
The past couple of years in Boulder City’s governance have been filled with deals that look dirty.
What the mayor and incumbents have so far failed to learn is the well-known credo that in politics, perception is everything. When you conduct your business under the table and insist those who part company with you are fools and jackanapes, people will see dirty dealing even though your acts may be nothing more than artless arrogance. When you say you support something and then vote to demolish it, people will stop believing anything you say.
In the two years since most of the City Council waxed poetic about the historic joys of the old Boulder City Hospital and then voted for its destruction by a developer who has replaced it with nothing, we have seen:
■ Then-City Attorney Dave Olsen found guilty of an ethics violation for his involvement in his son’s legal affairs.
■ An animal control supervisor suspected of murdering hundreds of dogs, though charged with only two counts of animal cruelty, and eventually jailed after fleeing the state.
■ Police administrative consultant (don’t call him chief) Bill Conger resign after the public discovered his choice not to file charges against the animal supervisor.
■ Woodbury cited for ethics violations for voting on four city contracts awarded to a client.
■ Woodbury and council members Rich Shuman, Duncan McCoy and Leavitt violated the “spirit and letter” of the state’s open meeting law by the Nevada attorney general for meeting in a non-noticed breakfast with the new finance director, Hyun Kim.
■ Olsen allowed to resign with full pension when his million-dollar mistakes called for termination.
■ According to a senior source in City Hall, City Manager Dave Fraser was allowed to resign with benefits when his own misdeed — allowing his new-hire six-figure assistant to use City Hall as a free hotel and then covering it up — came to light only a few weeks ago. In any business this is a firing offense.
When you consider the last-minute change to Question No. 1 in light of such scandals, it’s no wonder that citizens are accusing the City Council of cronyism and corruption. Politics is about what is perceived.
What’s puzzling to me is that the City Council keeps making such rookie mistakes. None of its procedural missteps were necessary to achieve the mayor’s goals.
By all measures when Woodbury took office as mayor two years ago, city policy was his for the making. All it took was transparency, basic diplomacy and citizen outreach to keep things on an even keel.
If Woodbury had run for re-election this year he would have lost badly. Assuming he runs in two years he is certain to have a capable challenger. Does he have what it takes to correct his poor instincts? Unlike his unlettered victory in 2015, from now on everyone will be watching.
Dale Napier is a sometimes journalist and recovering political consultant.