Is this any way to run a business?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – April 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

RECENTLY, A LOT OF PEOPLE have been clamoring for state’s rights, for dismantling the Federal government’s stranglehold on our concerns, for returning power to the people.

Those in favor of “less government” talk of New England town meetings, of participatory democracy, and about unfunded Federal mandates. The theory seems to be that the smaller the government entity the better — because then the citizens will have more say.

Which leads me to wonder, “Have these people ever been to a school board meeting? Have they ever seen their city council or county commissioners in action?”

I think not.

And yet Ed actually supports expanding local control. And he even thinks that local citizens should be able to exert some control over Federal lands and wilderness areas. Although Ed has been to hundreds of city and county meetings, he still feels that such measures are worth a try.

Personally, I take that attitude as a sign that Ed may need new eyeglasses and a hearing aid, but as he sees it, local officials are in a better position to evaluate whether their actions might cause unpleasant and unintentional consequences.

— Whereas, when our state and federal representatives pass legislation, their meddling often promotes chaos. Undoubtedly, we can thank the state and the feds for our recent problems with declining schools and removable railroads.

Also, as Ed so optimistically points out, Salida’s current problems with water meters are actually the result of a state mandate to put in water meters. As you may have noticed, Ed tends to blame everything on a higher source. But over the years, his stubborn insistence that local government control could conceivably provide a more equitable and responsive system has made me reflect on the matter.

Unfortunately, however, I’m still not convinced. Instead, whenever a politician endorses more state and local control, I shudder. In actuality, I don’t even like to imagine our local boards presiding over the national forests or the post office.

But that isn’t because I think our local politicians are less qualified — or in any way worse — than national politicians. No, it’s because local fiascoes can present far more immediate and bothersome consequences than state or national bungling.

Although congressional decisions have messed up our schools, hospitals, towns, cities, police departments, and personal finances, we still get by. We may have to work a few more hours a week or teach our kids how to read and write at home, but in the end all Newt and Bill can do is shut down the Federal government, close a few parks, and get us into a war.

Your local officials, however, can turn off your water, red tag your home, or arrest your child. Thus, as I see it, if there’s a government to watch out for, it’s your local government.

Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong at the local level. In Salida, we’ve had a lot of talented, intelligent people on our council. And we’ve got a fully participatory democracy (although a lot of council time is spent complaining about those participants). Yet nonetheless, plenty of things have gone wrong.

And Salida isn’t the only place with problems. Recent multiple recall elections in Buena Vista and Park County would suggest that many local boards are enjoying an era of unprecedented unpopularity.

Central Colorado’s county officials have been besieged by a fusillade of complaints regarding zoning and development. Park County citizens just recalled all three of their county commissioners. A bitter school board controversy is playing in Leadville. Feuds between members of property owners’ associations have become a national pastime. As the nineties progress, conflict seems to be our government’s major accomplishment — especially at the local level.

Yet I remember a time when council meetings tended toward dullness, when towns functioned with a minimum of fuss, and when recall elections were as rare as snow on the Fourth of July (not unheard of in the Colorado Rockies, but certainly unexpected).

Thus, for quite a few years now, I’ve been trying to figure out what changed. I thought maybe it was something in the structure of our government, or our society, or perhaps in our interpretation of Robert’s Rules of Order. (Or maybe there is actually something lurking in our water supply.)

Then finally, after a Salida City Council meeting on February 16th, I started to see one major reason why modern governments can’t possibly work.

Any more, government bodies have a peculiar notion of how to conduct business.

Basically, over the years, a lot of public officials seem to have decided that it just isn’t their job to do anything that anyone expects them to do. And that conclusion has led to a lot of confusion — since at this point no one really seems to know just what the real business of government is.

Thus, it doesn’t seem to matter when the citizens elect all new officials or an entire board gets recalled. Because as long as no one knows what our government is supposed to be doing, how are we going to make our government do it?

In January, Salida got a new mayor, a new city administrator, and (except for one member whose term was not up) a whole new council. Right now, Salida’s new council is still idealistic and hard-working. New council members tend to provide numbers, facts and research to support their proposals, (and a couple of them have obviously devoted scads of hours outside of the council room putting together information on the issues).

Yet even so, one suspects the new council’s enthusiasm will quickly wane.


Because at February’s meeting, it became obvious that the new council wasn’t any better at conducting business than the old one — and under the old council the city had definitely overlooked some basic business.

Last year, Salida worked on two major water projects, and they both ran into trouble. One was a hot water line between Poncha Springs and Salida, and the other was a water and sewer expansion to serve Wal-Mart and two nearby subdivisions.

In both cases, there were problems with rights-of-way. In the case of Wal-Mart, the solution involved substantial expenses — because service had to be finished in time for Wal-Mart’s grand opening. As for the other water line, although city officials now seem fairly optimistic, the rights-of-way are still being worked out.

So, doesn’t it seem to you that rights-of-way should be secured before construction begins? Yeah, me too. But that doesn’t seem to be the way our government works.

And in spite of massive changes, and an entirely new attitude, Salida’s government didn’t seem to be working much more efficiently in February — when once again Salida’s water system was a topic of concern. In this case, the issue was new water meters.

Councilwoman Monika Greisenbeck started the discussion by making a motion to postpone work on Salida’s water meters for one year so that numerous reported problems could be worked out.

But City Administrator Scott Hahn objected to the delay because the bond on the project specified that metering would be completed this year. Besides, he claimed, altogether there weren’t more than 100 to 150 complaints.

Then councilwoman Sue Potts said that she had been told that there weren’t more than 90 complaints.

Soon, it was concluded that there were hardly any problems after all, so the project should continue. But the council did think that public meetings to review the project might be helpful.

LAST DECEMBER, Ralph Moore, a former council member, proposed a public hearing to review problems associated with Salida’s metering project, but the old council rejected the idea. At the February meeting, however, the new council, endorsed two such meetings.

Afterwards, the discussion veered toward complaints about the -inch size of the water meter outlet (which has caused pressure problems in some homes, and is not considered adequate for home owners with lawn sprinkler systems). Then other participants complained about the high price of digging a meter pit. And then the discussion moved on again when an audience participant said he wouldn’t be very happy if the city cut down any of his trees to put in his meter.

At which point, someone suggested that home owners be notified before trees are cut, and a council member suggested that the city at least replace such trees with new trees. Then someone reminded everyone present that sometimes trees had to come out in order to accomplish maintenance work.

In response, Councilman Bayuk, the only long-term member of the board, said it was on city property and the city had every right to cut down any trees it wanted to cut down there, and that it was perfectly legal and proper for the city to cut down such trees. Then the discussion curved toward how people only came in with problems and never came in with solutions, and how the same people came in over and over to gripe.

Right here, I’d like to admit that I really don’t know whether the city should postpone its metering project or not. But I do have some ideas about what’s wrong with our city — and perhaps all government bodies.

Salida’s government has two main functions, one is to represent the citizens on matters of policy and law, and the other is to oversee business. But we seem to have those functions mixed up.

When people come in to complain because they have no water pressure, or because their bill is wrong, or because their street has a hole the size and shape of West Virginia down the middle of it, they aren’t coming in to exercise their democratic rights. They’re coming in to get something fixed.

And therefore — since the city is operating a utility company — it shouldn’t matter if there are 150 complaints, or 100 complaints, or 90 complaints or even if there is only one complaint.

Imagine calling Public Service and being told, “Well we’ve only had twenty or thirty complaints about electric outages, so it’s really not a problem.”

BESIDES, ALL THOSE NUMBERS are bogus anyway — since Salidans don’t have the foggiest idea who they’re supposed to complain to. So they’ve complained to the old council, and the new council, and the old mayor, and the new mayor, and the old administrator, and the new administrator, and the water guy they met on the street, and the city hall employee they ran into in the grocery store, and the newspaper, and at city council meetings.

And of course, there are always some people who wouldn’t complain if a city crew knocked down their garage. They’d just fix it, which might, in fact, be the easier way to handle things.

Thus, under the circumstances, it isn’t really possible to calculate how many people have complained. But I suspect that none of them complained to take part in some kind of a city poll to assure the council that all is well. On the other hand, however, the council is right about one thing. It is true that the same people complain over and over again.

But what does the city expect them to do?

I remember a man at a city council meeting last year who had been expecting water and sewer taps since his annexation to the city two years earlier. But he was back two years after that annexation — and many, many conversations with city officials later — because he still didn’t have water and sewer service. So did the city expect him to just go away?

Obviously, Salida’s government can’t give every citizen what he wants, or even needs for that matter, (although it does do a fair job if you’re Wal-Mart). But it can and should assess a situation before there’s a problem.

But our city council seems incapable of focusing on any one problem. Even in work sessions, it skips from problem to problem — seldom resolving anything.

Somehow, one suspects that Chevy and Ford don’t put cars together that way. “Well, we’ve got a little problem with the fuel line. In a couple of cars, it’s sags a little, so that when you step on the brakes, it can cut the fuel line — which can blow up the whole shebang. Yeah, and the air bags don’t work too well, either. Oh, and nobody seems to like the upholstery colors. And what about those tail lights?”

Come to think of it, maybe that’s how they came up with the Pinto.

But even so, there used to be a saying: Fix the little problems, and the big problems will take care of themselves.

Salida’s government, however, seldom even recognizes little problems. Instead, the primary goal of the council seems to be to ignore the details, and keep the project on track (which may be why we’ve had a hot water line project on track for years and years).

FOR A LONG TIME NOW, Salida’s council has handled its affairs by dismissing complaints, denying problems, and casting aspersions upon the complainants. But in doing so, it has allowed project after project to get mired by complications. For years now, the city has had to endure the same complaints over and over — because it ignored them in the first place.

Now, in holding public meetings, Salida’s officials are recognizing some problems. But with half of the meters already in, those problems aren’t readily fixable. And so, once again, our city administrator, our mayor, and many of our council members are trying to minimize the citizens’ concerns. These water meter problems are not, after all, monumental; they’re just a costly and damnable nuisance — which we will all have to work out in the months and years ahead.

Increasingly Salida’s government seems to rush into projects without adequate preparation or planning. Then, when things go wrong, the city blames the customers.

Moreover, now Salida’s government seems to expect the citizens to provide their own solutions to technical problems — even though, according to their own assertions, the council has consulted competent experts.

All in all, that’s a crazy way to run a business — and it’s going to have to change if we’re ever going to fix our problems.

Right now, a lot of citizens are demanding more local control, and maybe Ed’s right and it could work — but only if our local governments assume some responsibility for rectifying the unforeseen and unintended consequences of their actions.

When the Feds cut veteran’s benefits, or slash educational expenditures, or reduce Medicare payments, their decisions often seem bureaucratic and impersonal to those who have to live with the results. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that many citizens urge more local control. After all, you can appeal to your local school board or town council face to face.

But what can a citizen do when his local government responds to his grievances by denying any culpability? There seems to be little that anyone can do when local representatives repeatedly claim: “We can’t fix it. It’s not our job. It’s not our problem. You should fix it. And besides, there’s really nothing wrong, anyway.”

It would appear that we’ve come to a sad state of affairs when the much vilified moguls of corporate America — who presumably care only for their profits and their stockholder’s dividends — respond with more reliability and compassion than our so-called “public servants.”

–Martha Quillen