By: Robert O’Koniewski, Esq. – September, 2007
On the threshold of Labor Day weekend as the unofficial close of summer approached, many of us were enjoying the last throes of warm weather, or preparing our children for the new school year, or just plain wondering “Where did it all go?”
In Lawrence, however, for the political power elite, all municipal employees and their families, and the various City Hall denizens of all stripes lurking in the shadows, the approaching September 1st Labor Day weekend posed questions of more serious heft – “Would there be a city budget, or would the city effectively be shut down without an approved spending plan?”
What ensued thereafter on August 30th will be the stuff of lore for years to come. You can read the story for yourself within these pages. You can see that by reaching out to the state’s Department of Revenue for guidance and by using legal legerdemain and statutory interpretation, Mayor Michael Sullivan outflanked the city council politically and legally, plain and simple, to invoke his spending plan.
In reality this was the direct end result, not of any chicanery on the Mayor’s part, but of a lack of appropriate leadership from council president Patrick Blanchette as well as the lack of appropriate legal guidance from the professionals in the office of the city attorney and the office of the city clerk upon whom the councilors depend.
The real questions councilors should be asking are, “Why was this budget fiasco allowed to continue for so long?” and “How did we allow the council president and our attorneys to get us into this mess?”
Why the City of Lawrence did not have an approved spending plan in place well before the July 1st start of the fiscal year is the subject of much debate, consternation, and in many quarters just plain old whining. After two 30-day temporary spending plans, passed with council approval, Mayor Michael Sullivan made it clear than he was not interested in a third 30-day budget as the city council could not get itself any closer to finally approving his budget – or any amended budget for that matter – after reviewing it and debating its merits and demerits for two and one-half months.
As the clock was ticking on the second 30-day budget, with no plan for a full budget in place, the Mayor used a legal technicality based on the council’s inability to follow proper procedures laid out in the City Charter and in state law.
He took that loophole and drove a Mack truck through it to ensure that police and fire officials would not be laid off and the city would not be shut down for the month of September and thereafter.
Mayor Sullivan filed a notice for an FY 2008 budget plan with the city council on June 5, 2007. The council technically did not have a document to look at until June 12th.
Nevertheless, regardless of which date one wants to use, by the letter of the law of the City Charter, the council was obligated to set a date for a public hearing at that time and they simply refused to it.
Section 7.2 of the City Charter states the following: “The city council shall, within seven days following the date the proposed budget has been filed with the clerk of the council, cause to be published in a local newspaper the general summary of the proposed budget as submitted by the mayor and a notice stating (1) the date, not less than seven nor more than fourteen days following such publication, and the place at which the city council, or a standing committee of the city council, will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget and (2) the times and places where complete copies of the proposed budget will be available for examination by the public in advance of said hearing.”
If the council had just followed its own law, much of this mess could have been avoided. Under the law, setting the date for the public hearing is not even a subject of debate. For this council it is, however. “The council shall” means just that.
The council should have published by June 19th a public hearing notice for a hearing to be held within 14 days from that date. It took several votes cast after debate over several weeks to finally set a date – for mid-August. Even at that they couldn’t get it right as the clerk published the wrong notice with the glaring omission of the general summary on the budget – thereby causing the hearing to be further delayed several days.
As the weeks ticked away, not one person in the city attorney’s office or the city clerk’s office said to the council, “You may want to look at the City Charter and do things by the book. There’s this little law here that you may want to follow.”
Some councilors, especially the president, are fond of quoting chapter and verse from the City Charter when it suits their needs. Yet, in this case, the charter was completely ignored. It is this very lack of compliance with the City Charter that ultimately was part of the council’s undoing. It was the lack of a public hearing on the June 12th budget that allowed the Mayor to declare his budget as having legal approval.
Furthermore, the councilors received no appropriate legal guidance from the attorney’s office or the clerk’s office addressing their noncompliance with the charter or state law. Why were the councilors’ inappropriate actions met with silence?
We are a nation of laws that are to be taken quite seriously. Statutes, charters, and by-laws are not mere suggestions to be dusted off, looked at and ultimately ignored when it’s convenient. Why is our council, time after time, allowed to go down these paths of non-compliance? Why are there laws for the other 350 cities and towns of the Commonwealth and a completely different standard set for Lawrence? When will this systemic dysfunction infecting the Lawrence city council come to an end?
At this point in time, as the city moves forward, having averted a serious fiscal disaster with the threatened shut down of services, the city council should not be wasting more time and money by suing the Mayor. Judicial intervention should not be the next act in this soap opera.
The council, instead, should be asking itself what type of leadership it is getting from the current president and what type of guidance it is getting from its own professionals in the offices of the city attorney and the city clerk.
After all, this time it was just a matter of knowing what they should be doing and then doing it. Shame on the Lawrence City Council and its own professionals for not reading the same laws we all have available to us, including the Mayor.