Tuesday evening I attended my first City Council meeting. I’m not sure why I’ve never attended before, as I’ve watched meetings on the cable access channels on occasion. But I do know why I went to this one.
In my city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, there are at least 1/4 of a million people in the city limits. You can nearly triple that number if you want to include the entire metro area, but some of the neighboring towns are pretty proud of their own communities so, you better not lump the entire region into “Fort Wayne.”
One of the benefits of local government is that these people are your neighbors, they’re not living in the state capital or Washington, D.C. as your elected representative.
I saw several familiar faces including my district council person, the city attorney, and a couple other council members that I know personally even though I have not talked politics with them.
What inspired me to attend was a discussion that began Saturday afternoon regarding the Mayors office hiring an out of state firm to come and teach city departments how to employ social media to better serve the city residents.
The city is paying this firm $72,000 according to the newspaper story.
Outrage started flying in the Fort Wayne Twitter community.
Comments about how much money was being spent. About why an outside firm was being hired instead of a local entity.
The story was carried in the Sunday morning paper, by one of the television stations and by several bloggers.
Tuesday afternoon the conversation heated up again and I started doing some research on the matter.
Someone on Twitter @allencw suggested going to the city council meeting and I decided to join him. My intent was to simply observe.
The meeting I was told was pretty fast. 31 minutes. No one brought up the Fort Wayne Social Media contract. And for a good reason, I believe.
It’s the separation of powers. City Council is like Congress. The Mayors office is like the President. One has legislative powers, the other has executive powers.
Our Mayor has the authority to spend up to $75,000 without City Council approval in most circumstances. And the outside consultant was going to be paid $72,000; $3k under the threshold.
So this was not an issue for the City Council to be involved with unless they wanted to make a statement for the record, which no one did.
I did speak with one of the council members afterward and he mentioned that the contract for $72,000 was for only two months, which means that if it was extended beyond the original term at that rate of $36,000 per month would exceed the threshold and require review by the City Council.
A couple things struck me after this experience including:
Very few of us understand how local government works, let alone state and federal.
Very few people in government understand the power of social media.
I make this second point because of the timing of the press release by the Mayors office, apparently after newspaper deadlines on Friday. Sometimes this is done to bury a story. Traditional media outlets are not fully staffed on weekends. Also the Mayors office would not be available to answer pesky reporters questions like, why spend so much, why hire an out of state firm instead of local, etc.
But the folks on Twitter and the blogs talked. And the Traditional Media picked up the story.
One more disturbing comment was made to me by the city councilman whom I spoke with after the meeting. He said Twitter is dead. Too bad he doesn’t understand what happened over the weekend. And he used to have a pretty prominent blog.
Here are the links to the various stories:
http://www.angrywhiteboy.org/index.php/2010/11/06/fort-wayne-deputy-mayor-introduces-chicago-style-cronyism/#idc-container Read the comments for additional links.