New Town Hall not a reason to celebrate
I’ll not be joining in the celebration today of the opening of Truckee’s new suburban Town Hall. The selection and purchase of that building to house the seat of local government aptly illustrates what has gone wrong with our experiment with local governance.
Anyone who is honest will admit that the structure celebrated today is the wrong location for a Truckee Town Hall. It contradicts the explicit goals in the General Plan decrying suburban sprawl, and that building would never be permitted to be built under the current development code imposed on the private landowners who must compete with it in the market to lease professional office space.
Even more disturbing is the process that drove this mistaken decision. The process was essentially rigged by the town staff. Staff effectively withheld from the Town Council and the public the viable opportunity available to rent the same building short-term from a willing private purchaser. Worse yet, when this wrongdoing by its staff was brought to the council’s attention, what action did they take? We may never know for certain, because the discussion took place behind closed doors. But the reliable rumor is that our elected officials closed ranks behind the staff that misled them with the tired old saw that the suppressed information would not have changed their decision. That is hardly the point.
The council’s proper impulse to resist micromanaging their professional staff has metastasized into a staff that believes that it is in charge, and a Town Council either unwilling or afraid to re-establish the proper chain of command. That cancer manifests at all levels: in the planning process; in the claims resolution process; in the building inspection process, and on and on. You can see this cancer at the public meetings, where the elected officials politely endure strictly limited public comment. Then, after the limited public input has been closed, they listen to the unlimited “unvarnished truth” from town staff with the nave notion that the town staff does not have its own biases and its own agendas.
The town staff’s suppression of the viable short-term rental opportunity available for a truly interim Town Hall illuminates that agenda and bias. It also illustrates the lengths to which an over-empowered staff will go to get its way. Those of us raising children quickly recognize the nub of this problem from our parenting experience. A child, like a staff, will push the limits to see how far they can go. The parent, like the elected official accountable to the citizenry, must set and enforce the proper boundaries fairly, consistently, openly, and yes, firmly when necessary.
Our elected officials have shirked this basic responsibility, and the citizens of Truckee now pay the price for that failure. Three immediate actions are essential to rectify these problems.
First, to Mayor Don McCormack, at tonight’s ceremony please dedicate the new suburban digs officially as the “Interim Town Hall.” The word “Interim” should be stenciled on all signage, chiseled into the building facade, and printed on the Town letterhead as a constant reminder that this is only a temporary address for our government.
Second, to the Town Council, at tonight’s celebration please invite volunteers to serve on a blue-ribbon Town Hall Commission. This commission should be comprised of wise and diverse men and women from outside of government, and it should serve a dual role: (1) to identify a proper site for the real Truckee Town Hall; and (2) to push the Town Council to carry out its limp pledge to build a real Town Hall in a proper location before we are all dead and forgotten. Otherwise, the Town will slouch comfortably and permanently into its new suburban offices.
Finally, to the Town Council and town staff, some sincere soul-searching is in order. Our elected officials must analyze critically their relationship with the town staff, and vice versa. Both of them also must reevaluate the procedures they use to conduct public meetings. Current procedures over-empower staff, and emasculate the public and the principals pleading their case or cause to their government in those meetings. It is not micromanagement for elected officials to assert openly their control over the professional staff in favor of the citizenry – it is leadership, and leadership is sorely needed.
Exercising that leadership may prove less comfortable for the elected council members, and it may cut into the social relationships that naturally evolve between bosses and their subordinates in the workplace. But re-establishing that leadership and control by elected officeholders directly accountable to the citizens is essential to correct the course of governance in this town: that would be a real cause for celebration.
Bob Tamietti is a local attorney. Guest opinions do not necessarily represent the views of the Sierra Sun.
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