Your Own Private Albuquerque
Skullduggery in the halls of local government
By Greg Payne
They finally got rid of John Stevens—that red-headed kid on “American Idol” who couldn't sing three notes in a row and keep them in tune. I'm not willing to go as far as Elton John did in claiming that racism was the reason the country voted off some damned good black singers while keeping a pale-faced mediocrity around as long as they did. After all, mediocrities like Sisqo, 50 Cent, Andre 3000 and Elton John are making a pretty decent living despite limited talent. But you still wonder what the thought process was that kept Stevens around week after week—or what would cause someone to admit to watching “American Idol” in the first place.
On that note, the following are some happenings closer to home that also raise questions about the thought processes behind them. ...
What's Wrong with Local Government?
By the time this is published, odds are the City Council will have approved $50,000 for construction of a road to property on the far Westside of town that—coincidentally—is owned by Bernalillo County Commissioner Tim Cummins. Also by coincidence, a portion of Commissioner Cummins property will receive a $56 million Industrial Revenue Bond (IRB) from county government in order to lure a Swedish mattress manufacture and its gaggle of below-median income level jobs to the site.
The IRB is, essentially, a 20-year gross receipts and property tax abatement for the Swedes. No local mattress manufacturer (there are five) currently receives any sort of similar support from city or county government. But then, they didn't work out their land deal with a local elected official, either.
Three questions here: Why doesn't Cummins pay for the road himself (then again, why should he if taxpayers will)? How is it that all these taxpayer goodies have materialized for the land speculations of one very specific elected official? And why isn't there any public disclosure of land holdings for members of the City Council or County Commission before the IRBs and other tax-payer funded goodies are a done deal?
What's Wrong with Local Government (Part II)?
It took a ruling from the city's Ethics Board to end the sleazy business of allowing the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) to wine, dine and fly the mayor and city councilors—literally—all over the globe, despite that money coming from a cushy city contract.
The ACVB is a private entity that receives $4 million a year from the city to market the largely-unused convention center and promote tourism in Albuquerque. Until very recently (there have been some management changes) this money was viewed as an entitlement by the ACVB. No matter how anemic the results, no matter how few conventions were held in the convention center, ACVB expected its $4 million dollar check from the city year after year—no questions asked.
Virtually every mayor and City Council over the past two decades have been willing accomplices in delivering this City Hall gravy train on time. Playing the role of a white elephant in the middle of Downtown, the convention center stood virtually empty and was a perpetual drain on the city treasury. But every year ACVB's contract was renewed.
Then last year, legislation came before the Council (disclaimer here—I was a principle sponsor) that would require this contract be put out for a competitive bid. The rationale, in part, is to see if there are any other organizations who can more effectively market the convention center for $4 million a year, but also to simply light a fire under the ACVB.
Despite the well-documented problems with the convention center's lack of use, a number of councilors claimed there were, in fact, "no problems" with the ACVB or the marketing of the convention center. Worse, a couple of these apologists went into lengthy detail talking about the trips they had been on with the ACVB and how nice the ACVB staff was.
In their defense, I guess there's a certain amount of honor in defending the folks who pick up your tab.
Out of the Darkness, a Glimmer of Hope
Councilor Eric Griego recently proposed creating an Office of Inspector General in order to examine allegations of misfeasance, fraud and other wrongdoing in city government.
The city currently has an Office of Internal Audit, which despite limited funding and being a political target from time to time, does a phenomenal job. The problem, however, is the Internal Auditor produces report after report detailing problem areas in city government that go unread by our elected officials. Additionally, short of composing reports that city councilors can later ignore, the Internal Auditor doesn't have the ability to build a case and take it to prosecution.
Griego's legislation might not be the answer, but it is without question a step in the right direction. Short of creating a new department, the Council would do well to look at beefing up what they've already got at the Office of Internal Audit.
And reading the audits themselves from time to time wouldn't hurt either.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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