City Councilors Jan Martin and Val Snider reached the end of the political trail Tuesday afternoon when they sat through their last, mercifully brief Council meeting. Term limits forced Martin to leave the dais, while Snider declined to run for a second term, choosing to run ultra marathons instead.
Martin and Snider will be missed. Together, they served a total of 12 years and did so with great distinction. Thoughtful, well prepared and deeply knowledgeable about the city, they did their best to curb the uninformed radicalism that often characterized City Council from 2013-2015.
Changing the form of government brought wholesale changes to Council. In 2011, Martin was re-elected to her second at-large, four-year term, joining district incumbents Scott Hente and Bernie Herpin.
Six rookies took Council seats that April, including Snider, Merv Bennett, Brandy Williams, Tim Leigh, Angela Dougan and Lisa Czelatdko. Two years later, voters kicked Herpin, Leigh, Dougan and Williams to the curb, replacing them with Jill Gaebler, Don Knight, Joel Miller and Keith King. Czelatdko declined to run for a full four-year term and Scott Hente was term-limited. As a result, six rookies again took office in 2013, including Helen Collins, Jill Gaebler, Keith King, Don Knight, Joel Miller and Andy Pico.
The rookies immediately flexed their muscles, choosing veteran state legislator Keith King as Council president. The Mayor/Council wars escalated sharply, as Mayor Steve Bach pushed back against what he believed to be Council attempts to usurp his authority.
While the machinery of city government plodded on, thanks to Bach’s extraordinarily competent city staff, Mayor and Council crossed swords repeatedly over the City for Champions proposal, infrastructure funding and stormwater control. Bach ignored legislative vetoes that he described as “illegal,” while Council repeatedly considered measures that Bach bitterly opposed, including cuts in funding for the Regional Business Alliance and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
After 2013, Council quickly divided itself into two camps — the Reasonable Four and the Feckless Five. Led by King, the Feckless Five pushed through a Council reorganization that transformed a group of part-time policymakers into full-time meeting attenders and paperwork generators.
Council meetings soon degenerated into meandering, pointless marathons, featuring long-winded policy speeches by certain Council members. Council President King made a habit of introducing last-minute agenda items that required the business community to immediately mobilize in opposition.
Led by Martin and Merv Bennett, the Reasonable Four pushed back, to little avail. The Feckless Five reduced or canceled Utilities solar energy and demand-reduction initiatives, and pooh-poohed suggestions that the downtown Martin Drake Power Plant be closed in the near future. Certain candidates for seats on city boards and commissions were subjected to rude and disrespectful interrogation, apparently as a way of demonstrating Council’s power to humiliate and inconvenience Mayor Bach’s appointees.
Through these painful times, Martin and Snider joined Bennett and Gaebler in searching for reasonable compromise and blunting the furious enthusiasms of Knight, Collins and Miller.
Ever hopeful, Martin predicted more than a year ago that things would get better once the newbies had some experience.
The 2013 Council convened with three Councilors who had a total of 10 years experience on Council. The 2015 Council isn’t much better, with six members having a total of 14 years experience.
Such turnover tends to create antic and unpredictable city government, followed by public disgust and rejection of incumbents in subsequent elections — and the cycle starts anew.
It wasn’t always thus. In the 1990s and 2000s, impetuous Council rookies were reined in by wise old hands such as Bob Isaac, Larry Small, Randy Purvis and Mary Lou Makepeace. Angry ideological clashes were rare, city staff members were treated with courtesy and respect, and the city manager was left alone to manage the city.
Martin, who was first elected to Council in 2007, saw the tail end of the good times. She then served during the locust years when Council was forced to make difficult and unpopular decisions as a consequence of the Great Recession. It wasn’t easy to curtail park watering, shut off streetlights and make other painful cuts to maintain city solvency — but Council did it with relatively little acrimony.
Snider and Martin will be missed, but they’ll hardly disappear from the scene. They’re hardened combat veterans who understand both how to get good things done and stop bad things from happening. Let’s hope that newcomers Tom Strand, Larry Bagley and Bill Murray consult them for advice from time to time. Believe me, guys, you’re going to need it!
And if we’re lucky, Council will once more work together harmoniously and collegially. It’d be nice to drop the Feckless Five and the Reasonable Four, and be able to call them the Thoughtful Nine.