Thursday, December 15, 2011

City Gives The Finger To Citizens

A few weeks ago, we posted an op-ed about the Mesquite city government slipping back into their old, secretive, behind-closed-doors ways.
We had hoped that a literary shot across the bow might wake up those purportedly in control of the city and remind them why the council has so many new faces, and why voters have been so angry for the last few years.
On Tuesday, the Mesquite city government basically told the voters "fuck you."
Longtime good old boy Kurt Sawyer, the acting City Manager, recently manufactured one of the city's classic back room moves, elevating Bryan Dangerfield from his job as Economic Development Director to fill the job of Leisure Services Director being vacated by Rich Bohne.
A lot of people believe that Bryan Dangerfield has been completely incompetent in his previous role, particularly his questionable activities involving the Desert Falls debacle.  Yet instead of doing what most reasonable entities would do, terminating what appears to be a sub-par employee, he is given a promotion.  He will go from supervising one person to supervising a department of dozens.
Coincidentally, the Economic Development Department may possibly be disbanded in the coming year, a department that even Sawyer admitted has "provided very few things."
Of course, it has to be another coincidence that Sawyer and Dangerfield traveled to Wyoming for a few days recently, allegedly on an invite to talk business with NCS, another company that is the latest big dreamer scheming to capitalize on the huge and valuable plot of Desert Falls land. 
So Sawyer makes the call to give Dangerfield the plum position, without ever opening the position to job applicants.  The job isn't posted publicly, so nobody gets a chance to apply, including some people who might actually be qualified for the gig.
Sawyer also didn't bother to involve the city council in his decision, despite the fact that he's only an "acting" city manger.  Why would anyone temporarily filling a job make such a huge decision without involving his bosses?
Also, while online polls aren't very scientific or particularly accurate, last week's poll on this site asked the public whether Dangerfield should be made the new Leisure Services Director.  In that poll, 24 out of the 25 respondents said "no."
It gets better.
Last week, the council rightfully decided to include an item on Tuesday's agenda regarding Dangerfield's appointment.
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, that agenda item was nowhere to be found.
So who's responsible for the item's disappearing act?
Mesquite's City Attorney.
City Attorney Cheryl Hunt once again did what she does best: finding obscure Nevada statutes to justify hiding decisions and actions from the public.
Hunt claims she found a law that says the appointment of a high ranking city official is not allowed to be on the agenda.
It's inconceivable that any state would book a law that prohibits a city government from discussing the hiring of a key position.  And if they did, an aggrieved city government should fight such lunacy.
Instead of doing what a good city attorney would do, finding a way to make sure the citizens are involved in every city process whenever possible, she once again succeeded in making sure that the citizens get ostracized and screwed.
What makes this even more bizarre is the fact that, by law, the mayor must sign off on all city contracts.  But according to Hunt's claim, the mayor will have to do this one in secret, and not allow it to be discussed in an open forum.
Sounds pretty unlikely, but when your mission appears to be locating arcane rules to continuously exclude the public, you can always find a way.
Oddly, giving the finger to the public isn't the city council's fault this time.  The collection of well meaning but procedurally inexperienced neophytes is being abused and taken advantage of by the more seasoned staff that they are supposed to be supervising.
Now we'll get to see what this council is made of. 
There are some very real and concrete steps that must be taken.
For starters, and this has been brought up before, the current position of City Manager needs to be eliminated.  It has been this city's Achilles heel for nearly a decade.  The hard decisions about a city's future must be made by elected officials, not paper-pushing bureaucrats and hired hands filled with their own self-importance.  In a democracy, there must be accountability.
In place of a City Manager, the city should create and appoint a City Administrator, someone who handles the day-to-day operations, but must kick all important decisions upstairs.  It's not as fast or efficient a model, but is better reflective of a PUBLIC agency.
Until then, Sawyer should be removed as interim City Manager.  In a perfect world, he should be fired and removed from the city's employ altogether for running this back room game, but Hunt will surely be able to find some laws to protect and justify his actions.  Also, he has given Mesquite 21 years of service, and that has to count for something.
The council also needs to dramatically change the city's operational ordinances.  All department directors must be approved by the city council.  It will make the process more transparent, and will return the power and responsibility for the running of this city back to those who were elected to run it.
Another long overdue change is the firing of Cheryl Hunt as City Manager.  She has shown repeatedly that she is not working in the best interests of transparency for the people of Mesquite.  It's not all her fault.  In the past she has been bullied by some powerful people at City Hall.  But Mesquite needs a City Attorney who will scour the underbrush to find ways to make sure the people of this city are involved in the process, not someone skilled in finding rules to exclude them.  If that means we have to make the City Attorney's position an elected one specifically aimed at protecting the peoples' interests over the bureaucrats, then so be it.
Finally, the council should find a rule or law that allows them to overturn Sawyer's decision and return Dangerfield to his previous position.  Technically Dangerfield hasn't done anything to warrant being fired (although a deeper investigation into the Desert Falls deals might possibly unearth a few); and unlike the City Attorney position, he doesn't serve at the will of the council.  However, he should be allowed to go down with his ship.  He hasn't done a very good job running the Economic Development department.  He would be legitimately eliminated once the council decides next year to euthanize this failed agency.
In Bohne's place, longtime loyal Mesquite Leisure Department employee Nick Montoya should be considered for the interim head.  He has worked hard for this city, has given back to the community on his own time as a football coach, and knows the inner workings of the Rec Center and Leisure Services Department better than anyone else, including possibly Bohne himself.  The position should then be opened for applicants, and a hiring process begun.  If Montoya comes up anywhere near the top of that pile, he should be given the job.
So while it's tough to blame the new city council for this mess, they will be held accountable if they prove unwilling or unable to take the steps necessary to clean it up and keep it from happening again.
As was proven dramatically in the spring of 2011...the people of Mesquite really are watching, and they have shown that they are willing to make the hard decisions and take action at the polls when their elected officials will not.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Economic Development Department Needs To Go

The Economic Development Department is one of those feel-good bureaucracies that have exploded in municipal popularity over the last decade.  Somehow, city and state governments got along just fine without such high-sounding agencies for centuries, but now the departments have risen in importance to where you're more likely to find a town without a head of street repair than without an Economic Development Director.
It was a cushy job back when the economy was booming.  It was easy to claim economic success when someone could spill a drink, incorporate, then start earning a profit in the thrilling new drink-spilling industry. 
In 2006, Mesquite was seeing about two new business ribbon-cuttings every week.
Around that same time, the city saw its three biggest non-casino employers come to town: the Do It Best distribution center, Mesa View Regional Hospital, and Sun City.  Former mayor Bill Nicholes could be thanked for Do It Best and Sun City, while a collection of dedicated private citizens were mostly responsible for wooing the hospital here.
Then the bottom fell out of the national economy.
Suddenly, communities were depending on their Economic Development Departments to put on their red capes with the big "S" on the back and come to the rescue.
From coast to coast, those bogus bureaucracies were exposed for what they were - useless patronage positions filled with unqualified pencil pushers who had less business sense than your average salad bowl.
It isn't really the fault of the bureaucrat who happened to be sitting in the EDD seat when the music stopped.  It's a department that, like most things which start out as a good idea by a government, is simply an incompatible concept.
Governments by nature and design are charged with providing certain community services like roads, and protecting the public.  Throughout the centuries, most governments knew that their job occasionally included protecting the citizens from businesses, which is why they formulated so many laws and rules inhibiting commerce.
Then, in the last decade, governments started reversing engines and appointing EDD heads to help promote business in their communities.  Aside from the gearbox damage caused by slamming such a large institution into reverse, it also provided comedic irony that only the governments failed to see - hiring bureaucrats who are gifted at developing forms in triplicate, who excel at the minutiae of policy and procedure, who have spent entire careers in the field of "No!", and who have zero experience in creating a business from scratch or fathoming the personal risks of entrepreneurship, now tasked with helping lure and start new businesses.
It would be like hiring me to serve as a city's chief surgeon.  The skill set simply isn't there.
Today there is a move afoot by a group of local private citizens to try something different.  The group is suggesting that the city eliminate the department and outsource the duties of enticing news businesses and assisting existing businesses to a private agency like the Mesquite Community Development Corporation.  The MCDC is a group that was formed a couple of years ago by local business people, folks who actually know how to start and run a business.
This idea warrants some attention.
In most communities, the Chamber of Commerce would also be a likely candidate for helping bring in new business.  Unfortunately, in Mesquite that organization has been little more than a dysfunctional social club.  In fact, even the biggest business and employer in the city, the former Black gaming, quit the Chamber this year.
Mesquite's current EDD is a train wreck, and has been for some time.
Aside from the fact that it has been completely impotent in bringing new industry to town, it has also been involved in some of the city's biggest scandals.
The head of the EDD was elbow deep in the Desert Falls debacle, a failure which would have resulted in someone losing their job had they worked for a real business.  In fact, after it was discovered that someone in the city allowed the Desert Falls developers to pay a large deposit with a post-dated and unfunded check, some might even say a criminal investigation was warranted.  Instead, the EDD was expanded and the head of the department was given more power and authority.  They also took one of the brightest stars in the city government stable, Aaron Baker, and made him the EDD head's underling.  It's a waste of great talent.
Mesquite's Economic Development Department has also been a waste of time and money.  Their big claim to fame?  The "Mesquite Means Business" website.  The city been overpaying thousands of dollars for the site's design and hosting.  Also, there are pinatas that get more hits than this pitiful little slice of the internet. 
For a while, the city claimed it was going to jump on the alternative energy bandwagon and bring in purveyors of solar power, solar panels, and wind technology.  Today, Mesquite is trailing such mega-municipalities as Boulder City and Ivanpah.  Once again our inability to become a player in this realm, despite Mesquite's perfect climate and geography for such facilities, is a failure of the EDD.
Also, for years the city has had the well-earned reputation of being anti-business, with increases to its business license fees, its rigorous licensing process with 13-page applications, and its business-unfriendly sign ordinances and zoning.  Where was the EDD in all that?
The one good thing to come out of that department was an impressive video about Mesquite's golf facilities, and to a lesser degree, our casinos.  However, the behind-the-scenes truth is that the video was the brainchild of a group of forward-thinking golfers and businessmen who brought the idea to the city, and also helped fund it.  Which is more evidence that a privatized EDD makes sense.  Also, that video has been squandered because the city's EDD simply doesn't know how to market and promote it, or the city.  The proof?  Where is the latest Do It Best or Sun City?  The city owns a ton of land, and has even given it away in the past.  How incompetent is an agency that can't even bring a new industry to town with free land to offer?
The Mesquite Economic Development Department needs to be disbanded.  In these lean times of cutbacks, layoffs, and budget shortfalls, the last thing a small municipality needs is an expensive, underperforming agency.  Especially when the duties could better be handled by people who actually know what they're doing.

Editor's Note - After this story was written, broke the story that Economic Development Director Bryan Dangerfield will be taking over for Rich Bohne, who is leaving as the head of the city's Athletic and Leisure Department.  Moving a lousy director with questionable competence from one city department to another isn't exactly what we had in mind.  It also begs the question - how does the city make that decision without opening the position to a hiring process?  It appears good old boy, backroom dealing is back at City Hall.