Last night, the Harrisonburg City Council held their bi-monthly meeting. As I sat in my chair waiting for the 7 PM start time, one of the regular attendees leaned across the aisle and told me that he saw me on the TV speaking about the city owned golf course. He went on to say that the golf course was here to stay and that city parks and recreations were not in the business of making money. I agreed that parks weren’t designed to turn a profit and asked him if he knew of any privately run parks in the area. Neither of us could name one. However, I then countered that golf courses can be a source of revenue and asked if he knew of any privately run courses. He said that he didn’t know of any and, at that point, I realized discussing this point further with him would not be particularly useful.
Anyway, as for the official council meeting itself, most of the event was business as usual, such as the time for public discourse and discussing tax exemptions for a charity. However, things got a bit more interesting when the subject shifted to energy efficiency in the city. Recently, the city has been considering the idea of improving energy efficiency in its buildings, a commendable idea as it will likely provide a significant savings to city taxpayers. As a result, Council Member Kai Degner crafted a deal with a company who specializes in this kind of work to make these improvements. However, the city manager declared this action was quite irregular as normally these issues are typically explored by the city staff, bids are accepted from a number of companies, and then the council picks the option that they feel best suits the city. Although it is good to see Kai Denger working hard on this issue, given that neither the majority of council nor the Harrisonburg staff seemingly had a hand in this company’s selection, if the idea moved forward, it could bear the stain of crony capitalism.
Harrisonburg Mayor Ted Byrd argued that in the interests of the free market, the council should not simply accept the company of Degner’s choosing without considering other avenues. When Degner proposed going ahead with the desired company, it seemed quite likely that the vote would fail. This fact is significant because, of the multitude of council meetings that I have attended over the last six months, not a single proposal had failed nor had the vote been anything but unanimous. Cognizant of such a possibility, Council Member Degner revised his proposal to allow other companies to bid for this contract as well.
At this point, Council Member Abe Shearer raised a new point. Why should the council only allow companies who offered a money back guarantee for their work to bid for this project? If the council could find a company with a good reputation who did not have such a guarantee, and at a considerable savings, shouldn’t they have the same chance to offer their services as well? Vice Mayor Charlie Chenault seemed to disapprove of that idea.
In the vote that followed, Degner and Chenault approved the revised plan, as did Council Member Richard Baugh who declared that he was satisfied with this compromise. Although clear that the measure would pass despite their objections, both Mayor Byrd and Council Member Shearer voted no.
As mentioned, I’ve attended quite a few council meetings as of late. However, last night marked a first, the first time that I was proud of my council for voicing my shared concerns about a fair and open process, for supporting the ideals of the free market, and for demonstrating that they are more than a monolithic group, a rubber stamp for any and every proposal that is presented to them. Returning to an earlier subject, last night gave me hope as well that the council might one day jettison the golf course, realizing that its public ownership is not a proper function of local government.
I appreciate Council Member Baugh for not simply accepting the first proposal as stated. However, I write this post especially to praise Mayor Byrd and Council Member Shearer for their firm stands at Tuesday’s meeting.