The League of Women Voters is used to performing the lonely and sometimes unpopular task of representing the public interest in the midst of controversies dominated by private interests. Too often we seem to be the only ones who speak out against the majority.
This last month there were several examples of this testimony before the State Tax Review Commission and the legislature opposing major tax cuts at the time of fiscal stringency; testimony supporting a bill turning loans to candidates into contributions on election day; preparation for the convention and public and delegate education to name a few State issues; and repeated testimony to the City Council insisting that the Mayor's nominations for department heads meet the qualifications in the Charter.
Because I am most familiar with our efforts at the Council, I'd like to cite details on how League attempted to represent the public interest in what seemed like a cut-and-dried issue. The charter, as the City's Constitution should, presumably, be obeyed by all.
- Under the Charter, minimum requirements are specified for a number of Department heads, including Chief Planning Officer and Director of the Department of Land Utilization. These call for a minimum of 5 years of training and experience in a responsible planning position, at least 3 years of which shall have been in a responsible administrative capacity in charge of major city planning activities or major land utilization activities, respectively.
- In the past, requirement like these have often been ignored or rationalized, and the appointments were the Mayor's sole prerogative. In 1992 we worked hard to get the Charter qualifications strengthened. We recommended strengthening the requirements to include graduation from a recognized professional planning school and the committee agreed. These subject matter committees were not open to the public.
- Somewhere in the process the recommendations were thrown out by the commission. Insiders told us this was because one or two of the Department heads could not meet these qualifications. However, the council was given the power to approve or reject nominees for Department heads, and is now seeking to have this extended to
- The current nominees for these two departments are an architect and a lawyer, respectively. though several organizations their deputies objected to their confirmation for various reasons including conflicts of interest, we based our objections entirely upon failure to meet specified qualifications.
- On 1/4/97 we wrote letters to two Councilmembers who had expressed doubts and called their attention to the applicable Charter requirements. on 1/29 we urged the Council's "Executive Matters Committee" to scrutinize the professional backgrounds of the nominees to see if they met the Charter requirements. On 2/19 we testified before the full Council on the CPO nominee. The nominee was approved in spite of Kim's searching questions and Holmes' opposition. There was a great deal of discussion on a "liberal" interpretation of the Charter.
- On 2/24 we pointed out that "liberalization" of the Charter's requirements was not the same as ignoring them. We were informed that 25 years ago the legislative history showed that the Charter Commission didn't want the requirements to be too stringent. No one explained why the requirements they did put into the Charter in 1973 should be further weakened in 1997. The Chair of the `92 Charter Commission pointed out that League had not been successful in getting the requirements strengthened because "public opinion was against us". Holmes reminded them that the public had no chance for input and the issue was never put on the ballot. The DLU nominee was approved by the Committee 4 to 1, with Kim dissenting. The full Council will meet on March 12 for a final vote on confirmation.
I have traced this scenario as an example. of how hard it is for the public interest to prevail. Though several other groups also testified objecting to the nominees' records on environmental issues and on conflict of interest, it made no difference. The Council majority wanted to approve these nominees, and that was that.
We are grateful to Councilmembers Kim and Holmes for their valiant efforts toward doing the right thing. We hope the CH54 broadcasts gave the issue a good airing. One staff member whispered to us, "Thank god for the League of Women Voters some one has to tell it like it is". Maybe next time we won't be so lonely.