Wayne Trotter, The Countywide & Sun
All right, let's get this straight. Shawnee's firefighters, or at least the union which represents Shawnee's firefighters, went public last week in a belated effort to convince "the small people" (thank you, BP) that the city's new budget cut their department to the point that it could endanger union members and the public in general. The protest started on Facebook and culminated with a half-page ad in Sunday's edition of The Shawnee News-Star.
Given the city's current financial condition, that may not have been the best strategy but the firefighters have a right to make their position known. Whenever budgets are reduced, there is a chance mistakes will be made. Speaking out is the American way and these people used their own money to do it. So far, so good.
But under the circumstances, the most predictable result was that their protest would fall flat. It did. Not only did this last-minute flurry fail to move a vote on the City Commission, it didn't even inspire a single citizen to step forward and echo their concerns. The commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the proposed budget as drafted. So far, so good again.
Beyond noting that the union effort was too little, too late, diagnosing the reasons for the lack of public reaction is an imperfect challenge. It's not that the people of Shawnee don't value and appreciate the courage and service provided on a day-to-day basis by members of the Shawnee Fire Department. Firemen are modern American heroes and deserve that status. To us, that's a given.
The real answer is a lot simpler: The people of Shawnee understand a basic economic maxim that too many outside and inside governments elsewhere in this country don't grasp: You can't spend money you don't have.
Because Shawnee is a trade center and because Oklahoma's municipalities rely heavily on sales tax revenues, Shawnee doesn't have the money right now. Cutting the budget wasn't merely an alternative for these commissioners. It was an imperative.
Fairness is another element. Unions exist to better the economic conditions of their members and both of Shawnee's public employee organizations (the firemen and the policemen) have a record of giving that the good old college try. That's what they're supposed to do.
But during this economic downturn and despite the administration's efforts to do otherwise, nonunionized city employees seem to have sacrificed a little more than their organized co-workers — and non-union employees represent the majority of those who work in or for City Hall. Lots of this has been obscured by the "confidentiality" of the negotiating process, but the general impression is that the police union has been more flexible than the fire union. That's a switch because of the pair, the police union has had a reputation of being a little more difficult for city administrators to handle. As of this moment, the city has a contract for the coming year with the policemen and it includes some union concessions. The fire union does not have a contract.
Now for our soapbox: We believe the city has bought some of these problems by holding this budget process too close to its vest. In the past five or six years, Shawnee has held open budget hearings almost from the get-go with department heads presenting what they wanted — pipe dreams occasionally included — and commissioners asking questions that sometimes changed the outcome. That didn't happen this year. Except for the formal "public hearing" required by state law, there were no open discussions worthy of the name. Meanwhile, the commission has continued to bolt behind closed doors at the end of most of its meetings. Commissioners have held 12 regular meetings this year. Eight of those have included closed-door sessions.
Two of the major concerns across government these days are "accountability" and "transparency." We believe the old and evidently abandoned policy of openness in Shawnee paid dividends when the city imposed what some interpreted as a series of onerous rate increases to fix the deplorable condition of its utility system. In that case, the city held years of open meetings to talk about needs and past neglect, and this newspaper and The News-Star both provided fair and thorough coverage at no cost to the city.
The growing accountability / transparency gap in Shawnee didn't make any difference Monday because the city clearly got its message across. But if Shawnee keeps doing this, it will. The city can count on that.
Posted on Tue, August 17, 2010