Fredericksburg Councilman and mayoral candidate Fred Howe wants to have four public hearings on the city's $78.6 million budget to discuss job creation, economic development, educational funding, historic downtown and the riverfront park and the short- and long-term financial impacts of the $35 million courthouse project.
The problem is he sprung the idea on his fellow council members Tuesday night without any notice and caught them by surprise, resulting in some pushback and a pause on moving forward with his plan until he has a private conversation with City Manager Beverly Cameron.
Cameron's proposed budget doesn't include a tax increase and has a 2.5-percent pay increase for more employees and $310,000 for new positions in various departments, including a public information officer. The budget and tax rate need to be set by May 15.
Councilman George Solley said it has been the practice of Council that when a member wishes to make a motion for action, that council member provides documentation to support the motion in advance. Solley's remarks set off a back-and-forth debate with each council member chiming in about Howe's request.
"I will vote against this motion for the reasons we have not received anything in writing about it other than what you just said," Solley said.
Ever since the courthouse project, Howe has been very critical of four of his fellow council members—Solley, Mary Katherine Greenlaw, Kerry Devine and Mayor Tom Tomzak—and city staff for not being transparent enough during that process, holding too many closed meetings. He voted against the courthouse project with Councilman Brad Ellis and Councilwoma Bea Paolucci because he didn't think the process was open enough to the public and he didn't support the tax increases that would be needed to pay the $35 million in debt.
Mayor Tomzak said Howe's still angry about the way the courthouse project transpired and insinuated that he was making this request all because of that project.
"At the end of the day this is about your disagreement with the court[house process]," Tomzak said. "Why don’t we just have one on whether we go ahead with the courts or not?"
"It’s not all about the courthouse, although that is a significant impact," Howe said.
Councilwoman Devine said she doesn't support Howe's motion, but that doesn't mean she doesn't want more input from constituents.
"I don’t really intend to look at the budget through that narrow vision in separate stages," she said. "I would not support holding those meetings separately."
Fredericksburg has 13,346 registered voters but only about 3,000 of them voted in the last mayoral race. More people vote in the at-large candidate races, but apathy is a huge problem for the city. Howe said the only public hearing the city has scheduled for this budget doesn't allow for interaction. He wants the process to be more open and transparent with more interaction and priority setting.
Councilwoman Paolucci said she agrees with Devine in that she doesn't want to have four separate public hearings.
"I think what Mr. Howe is after is a dialogue," she said.
"We don’t have an open dialogue to these four major topics," Howe replied.
Vice Mayor Greenlaw, who is also running for mayor against Howe and Matt Paxson, said Howe's request for more public hearings is a little late in the process. She said City Council has a series of work sessions coming up and they could focus more on some of Howe's topics. Local residents are allowed to attend work sessions, but they are held in a small conference room upstairs in City Hall.
"At this point and time it is simply impractical to think we can have four separate public hearings," Greenlaw said.
Howe said it is possible to have these public hearings and he looked to the city manager for help. But Cameron said he wanted to take the discussion offline because he wanted to know more about why Howe was bringing this to the table and he couldn't provide much answers Tuesday night. Earlier in the day, Howe was critical of Cameron's budget and accused him of moving money around in a confusing manner to hide the financial impacts of the courthouse project and presenting a no tax increase budget because his employment contract is up for review next month.
"I would be happy to work privately to try to understand the nature of your request in more detail," Cameron said. "I don’t think I understand it well enough from seeing it for the first time tonight."
Howe said that council members got Cameron's budget just two weeks ago, so everyone is on a short schedule, but accommodating input from the public is imperative.
Council voted 4-3 to have Howe meet with Cameron to discuss his proposal. Greenlaw, Solley and Devine voted "No."
What do you think of Howe's request? Good idea? Overkill? Posturing? Could the city do more to engage the public during budget time? Speak out and comment.