Alibi V.18 No.21 • May 21-27, 2009 

Council Watch

Money as Weapon

Two high-dollar battles were put to rest at the Monday, May 18 City Council meeting when councilors resolved stewing budget issues.

One hot item was the city’s $475 million operating budget for next fiscal year. The Council pretty much left Mayor Martin Chavez’ proposal intact but slashed more than $150,000 from advertising for the Environmental Health Department. Those ad campaigns promote city services such as Adopt a Pet, which happens to be a pet project of the mayor’s. Councilor Michael Cadigan also sliced $50,000 from cash to operate Warehouse 508, the city’s budding teen center, among other cuts. Councilors funneled this money into an additional $250,000 for Roadrunner Food Bank.

Councilor Sally Mayer and several other councilors said they thought it was better to prioritize feeding people over advertising city services. They also allotted $80,000 to hire another auditor to keep an eye on city financial business.

The rest of the Council supported Cadigan’s call to bring down the city’s hot air balloon as well—even though it is not funded by the operating budget. The balloon costs $60,000 a year to lease, and that money comes from Aviation Department fees collected from airlines. But this did not seem to matter, and the Council eliminated the balloon lease altogether.

At the Council’s last meeting, it challenged Mayor Chavez to approve its version of the capital project budget, not his, or they would go to court. In an effort to avoid embarrassing litigation between branches of government, the Council passed an amended compromise. Chavez played nice and sent back the Council’s version of the construction budget with additional funding for four projects. So Warehouse 508 will get $300,000 added to its already budgeted $1 million for renovating the old Icehouse.

An extra $2 million will go to the Los Duranes Community Center to rehabilitate its crumbling building. Westgate Community Center will get a cool million to make a few more improvements to the busy gathering place. The city’s budding four-acre Japanese Garden located at the BioPark will get an additional $1.4 million, which should finish off that project. Cadigan did not support this compromise with the mayor, though several other councilors chimed in, saying this was the best capital budget they’d seen in many years. Voters will have their say when they are asked to approve it in October.

A last-ditch effort by Chavez to put a federally funded light-rail, streetcar or trolley back into the city’s long-range planning was met with defeat in a 5-4 vote. In his letter to the Council, Chavez even quoted President Obama, saying, “What we need, then, is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century. A system that reduces travel times and increases mobility. A system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity. A system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs …”

Five councilors opposed the light-rail request but agreed to consider putting the question to voters.

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Troubles and Payne

This issue was not on the agenda but proved to be one of the most interesting happenings at the meeting. Several dozen Transit Department employees and their supporters donned green T-shirts, yellow lapel buttons and held hand-painted signs.

They turned out in force to ask the Council for an independent audit of the Transit Department and its director, Greg Payne. Steve Griego, who is the newly appointed union president, said Director Payne would not allow him on Transit property to talk with employees.

To defend himself, Payne countered their comments by talking smack about some of his workers. He showed on-board camera clips of several bus drivers allegedly gone wrong. Payne’s motives were unclear, but his presentation seemed to be an oblique attack on unions and his own employees.

One clip showed a driver taking an unapproved 18-minute restroom break. Another showed a driver blasting rock music by Twisted Sister throughout the bus and another driver covering a bus camera with duct tape in order to allegedly steal a wrench.
Payne tattling on his own staff did not go over well, and councilors asked him to stop playing snitch. They were taken aback when they heard from employees that the Transit Department hosts a climate of harassment and intimidation from the top down.

Councilors reacted with concern when several workers told stories of how they were fired, reprimanded or plain harassed for speaking up about problems—or for just going to the bathroom. Councilor Debbie O’Malley said she was shocked at what sounded like Gestapo tactics and told Payne to “get your house in order.” Cadigan said Payne should be ashamed of himself for “hanging his troops out to dry.” He and Council President Isaac Benton said they ride the bus regularly, and they have only seen professional, courteous behavior and have never dealt with blaring Twisted Sister. They said they will consider asking for an audit.
Director Payne looked bad when he tried to shift the blame for the turmoil in his department onto the backs of the men and women he supervises. It was a bit disconcerting to hear that transit workers make up about 5 percent of the city’s workforce but comprise about 80 percent of grievances.

This sure doesn’t sound like a happy place to work. Payne, who is known for being a bit of a wild card anyway, said he takes full responsibility, but it was unclear what he meant. If this was true, he shouldn’t have brought his video clips. By doing that, he only further alienated his employees and the Council. All of this infighting hurts employees and the public who depends on the city’s transit system. Payne instead should have sat down with the union representative, some employees and a facilitator to work out the problems.