The unamusing recent actions of the Directors of the Board of Public Utilities remind me of a scene from my all-time favorite sitcom, the oft-overlooked late 90's gem NewsRadio. In this particular episode, station manager Dave has had a glass security door installed between the elevator and the bullpen, citing a rash of petty theft in the office -- which the staff contends is actually just Dave's tendency to misplace things.
Throughout the first half of the episode, Dave finds various employees attempting to defeat the door's purpose. Drive-time anchor Bill tries to tape the locking mechanism open so that he won't get locked out when he uses the bathroom. Station engineer Joe steals Dave's wallet in an effort to prove that the door won't stop anyone from doing so. And staff reporter Matthew attempts to convince Dave that a bird flew into the door and died, which Dave investigates only to find that Matthew had simply placed a Cornish game hen at the window ("and you didn't even bother to defrost it!").
The scene relevant to our fine city's political situation today comes when Dave walks out into the bullpen and sees the security door propped open by someone's desk chair. As he removes it and closes the door, he reminds the staff that the door is to be kept closed at all times, and that he doesn't want people circumventing the security system.
"Dave, we're not 'circumventing' it," secretary Beth corrects him; "We're just trying to get around it."
Such is the position of the BPU.
As reported by the Hillsdale Daily News, the utility's board of directors -- a board appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council to run a department of the city, mind you -- up and decided to hire their own attorney... ostensibly to "know the rules of the game" as board member Duke Anderson put it. They sent this nameless, faceless, but oddly pronoun-specified Grand Rapids municipal affairs lawyer a copy of the city charter and directed him to interpret the section about public utilities.
And therein lies the problem. The city administration's position, as reiterated numerous times by both Interim City Manager Doug Terry and City Attorney Lew Loren at Monday night's regular city council meeting, is that the BPU is a semi-autonomous entity. They have their own budget, they have their own board, and while they answer to the city council on major affairs, they are allowed leeway to make their own decisions in matters of operating the public utility company.
Which is mostly true. Buuuuuuuuuuut...
The city council contends -- and they're correct -- that said leeway does not include the right to hire independent counsel of their own volition. That action requires approval from the city council, because as a department of the City of Hillsdale, the BPU's legal counsel is, by default, the city attorney. Outside counsel has been brought in by the city in the past to resolve matters that the city attorney does not have the expertise to make a conclusion about, but that's done at the council's discretion, not that of any one department.
As the Daily News reported about the June 8th BPU personnel committee meeting, "The question asked [of the outside attorney] was who had control and final authority as well as the responsibilities and processes between the council and utility board."
That says to me -- and anyone with half of a functional brain who is willing to use it -- that the BPU board hired their own lawyer just to get the interpretations they want so as to "get around" recent directives from the city council, namely those regarding the termination of soon-to-be-former director Rick Rose. They want him to stay, and they're willing to play dirty to make it happen.
To make matters worse, the city attorney who is, as detailed in Section 4.15 subsection (e) of the city charter, supposed to be making these determinations for the city -- because, you know, he's the freakin' City Attorney -- once again abdicated his duties and refused to research any of this. The lame excuse he gave the council for that insubordination at Monday night's meeting was, and I quote, "I don't like spending the city's money without you guys telling me you'd like me to do that."
Keep in mind, that's what he gets paid to do anyway. Reading the city charter would not have cost the city a damn thing other than his regular pay. He literally sat there Monday night and told the council to their faces that he'll happily take taxpayer money to do absolutely nothing.
Forgive my language used in justified outrage, but I'm pretty sure at this point that if you look up "cocky bastard" in the dictionary, Lew Loren's picture is the only definition.
Oh, and what ever came of that outside attorney's reading of the city charter's section about public utilities? He said it was too complicated, and that he'd get back to us by the end of the month. Which is how we know that this is nothing more than a ploy by the BPU board to circumvent the law. If I can look this stuff up online in twenty minutes and come to an easy conclusion about where the lines fall, a lawyer should have no problem doing the job even more quickly.
You know, the job we're paying LewLo not to do.
The city council, absent Councilpersons Brian Watkins and Sally Kinney, were not happy about any of this. In fact, it was Councilperson Emily Stack-Davis who brought it up, because Terry said nothing of it in his report to the council. He wasn't even going to mention it.
I mean, why should he? It's not like it's explicitly in his job description "To see that all department heads of the several City Departments completely and faithfully perform their respective duties" or "to keep the Council fully advised at all times as to the financial condition and needs of the City."
Besides, he took his report session as an opportunity to thank everyone for his time as interim city manager, because he's out of here. "This is my last city council meeting," he said. David Mackie takes over from here.
Don't take that the wrong way: it's not that Terry doesn't give a damn. He does. He sides with the BPU board on this issue. That's obvious by his actions alone, no matter how much he swears up and down to the council that there's no malicious intent. He'll simply assist the board in widening the rift before he goes because he arrogantly believes there won't be any repercussions for him to face.
The sad fact is that if no one on the council bothers to step up and dig deeper into all of this, he very well might be right about that. Despite their recent show of backbone, if decisive action isn't taken very soon, the council may have their power usurped after all. Wrongfully, yes, and if this has to go to higher levels of government to resolve, it will be resolved in the council's favor, but they might lose this battle, which will be costly to the taxpayers even if they ultimately win the war.
Later in that same NewsRadio episode, Beth and Matthew find Dave sitting in a chair by the security door, staring at it. When asked what he's doing, he replies that he's watching to make sure the door closes.
"Dave, it's closing." Beth exasperatedly insists.
"It's not closed until I hear it... click."
Matthew looks back at the door behind him and shakes his head. "Didn't click."
"Maybe it did," Dave claims as he gets up to close it. "Maybe we just couldn't hear it over all the chatter."
The station manager pushes the door just a bit until it audibly locks into place and says definitively, "There. Now it's closed."
At which point the door abruptly shatters into millions of glass shards behind him.
My suggestion to the Hillsdale City Council: fire Lew Loren, dissolve the BPU board, and appoint qualified electors of the City of Hillsdale in their places.
And buy a shatter-proof security door.
Addendum: The city council voted 4-2 to direct new City Manager David Mackie to schedule another joint meeting with the Board of Directors where the two bodies will discuss this matter. The date for that meeting has yet to be determined.