Speak softly, but please pick up a big stick

If any municipal council on the face of the planet has a reputation for, shall we say, boisterous debate during meetings, it is Bellevue Council. There exists a long and proud tradition in Bellevue of government going off the rails. Until now.

This new council is so busy trying to be friendly that they are, for the most part, allowing some enterprising officials to get away with murder.

Everyone got bent out of shape when a council member inelegantly expressed his own views in an e-mail, but fell all over themselves trying to be gentle when the mayor – in direct violation of the law and with no input from council whatsoever – blew 10 grand in tax dollars on a Harry Potter festival that was run by a private organization. The sheer audacity of that action demanded so much more from council than a quiet “in the future give us a heads up.”

Then we come to the service line warranty program. Council has pretty much agreed that what they really want to do is make sure residents know that they are financially responsible for any repair or replacement of water, sewer and gas lines once said lines leave the public street and enter into private property. Instead of just sending a simple letter to residents along with their garbage collection bills or tax bills or whatever else the borough is billing for, many on council seem to think that the answer is to publicly endorse one of many private companies that insure service lines. Does anyone truly not see the ramifications of allowing a private company to usurp what many, if not all, recipients of this company’s marketing materials will see as a mandate to use this particular company? Meanwhile, the borough has no control whatsoever of how this company conducts its business, sets its prices, or changes its warranties, now or in the future.

What’s next? The borough endorses a tree removal service or a snow shoveling business? Why not, now that the door is about to be opened. Where do you draw the line? Why on earth would any municipality express a preference for one company over another? Why take on the headaches and liability when something goes wrong – and something will go wrong. Something always goes wrong.

And then we come to the latest proposal that should be eliciting very loud responses of “Are you freaking kidding me???” instead of polite little smiles from Bellevue Council – hiring a paid fire chief.

This proposal is the brainchild of the mayor, who ultimately sees the mayor being in charge of not just the police department, as it states in the borough’s home rule charter, but the fire department, code enforcement office, and anything else that can be thrown under the umbrella of public safety, such as Harry Potter festivals, we presume. The borough did wipe out pretty much its entire emergency management budget for the year to pay for this year’s festival. After that, they started hitting the recreation budget, so it’s entirely possible that parks will be the next thing to fall under the mayor’s purview as related to public safety.

That seems an awful lot to put on the shoulders of one part-time elected mayor. The borough actually pays a full-time director of administrative services to do all that. If the borough is going to take away half his responsibilities, then perhaps the borough will find it only fair that the new administrator – the mayor – is paid as well.

The important point to pick up on here is that the borough already has a management system. It has been in place for decades, and it works. The borough does not have a management problem with the fire department – it has a personnel problem. They don’t need to redesign the entire system and they certainly do not need to tear apart the home rule charter. They need someone to metaphorically slap a few people in the back of the head and tell them to shape up or ship out, or at least arbitrate an agreement between the volunteers and the paid firefighters.

It’s not like there are 200 firefighters that need to be managed. Bellevue has three paid men and maybe a dozen or so active volunteers. And the bottom line is that, no matter what Bellevue does with its management system, the volunteers are an authority unto themselves and they don’t have to answer to anyone else. They are, in fact, the most critical part of this issue, because without them, Bellevue has no way to put out fires. The borough cannot afford an entirely paid department, and what other volunteer company would be insane enough to walk into this mess?

So, Bellevue Council, be as polite and professional as you want, but for Pete’s sake, stop letting every idea bubble become a reality without using the proverbial stick to poke some well-deserved holes in it.