Editor's note: The name of the Finance Director was corrected
There’s a difference between micromanaging and exercising responsibility.
Apparently, some Killeen council members haven’t made the distinction.
In a contentious 4-3 vote Tuesday, the council agreed to put a proposed city charter amendment on the May 5 ballot that would remove the council’s authority to have the final say on one category of city transactions — interdepartmental transfers.
Council members who backed the amendment see keeping the council in charge of those transfers as an attempt to micromanage the city administration. Council members who voted against the proposed change see that oversight as part of the job they were elected to do.
The view voters adopt this spring will determine the fate of the amendment — which will be on the ballot as Proposition 1.
Under the proposed amendment, the council would retain its authority to approve transfers between different city funds, but the amendment would give the city manager — an unelected official — the ability to move funds between departments. The city manager already has authority to make intrafund transfers — or line-item changes.
Ostensibly, the amendment is designed to streamline the city’s budget operations by allowing the city manager and staff to make adjustments as needed — rather than waiting for council approval.
But Proposition 1, if approved, would also serve to limit council oversight and reduce government transparency.
That’s the last thing Killeen needs after years of budget secrecy and questionable financial management — which culminated two years ago in a proposed municipal budget that projected an $8 million shortfall.
The same council members who opposed a subsequent four-month audit of the city’s finances — which turned up significant problems — were the ones who said they didn’t believe they should “micromanage” the budget.
They’re also the ones who are telling critics of the proposed amendment to just “let the city manager do his job,” as Councilman Juan Rivera told Councilman Gregory Johnson on Tuesday.
By all means, City Manager Ron Olson should be allowed to do his job, as he has done admirably since his hiring early last year. But council members should be allowed to do their job as well — and that means acting as stewards of the taxpayers’ money. It’s hard to fulfill that role if some of their oversight functions are taken from them.
No doubt, most of the interdepartmental fund transfers are likely to be mundane housekeeping items to balance expenditures. Under current policy, Olson brings occasional budget amendments to the council that project where the city needs to shift money as the fiscal year plays out.
While the new policy would eliminate the need for these “catch up” adjustments to the budget, it would also eliminate the council’s ability to sign off on them — and that offers the potential for problems, at least in the abstract.
Since his hiring, Olson has worked hard to improve the efficiency and transparency of the city administration — and he is to be commended for that.
But council members opposed to the proposed charter amendment have legitimate concerns that some future city manager might not be so open in dealing with the council — and as such, having the authority to make interdepartmental transfers without council approval could have the potential for abuse.
Let’s be clear here. If voters approve this amendment in May, it changes the city charter, and only another charter election can reverse that change.
It would seem that the council members who voted to include the amendment on the May 5 ballot are willing to exchange transparency for expediency — and voters should be cognizant of the consequences if the amendment is adopted.
For Olson’s part, he favors the amendment, saying it would encourage department heads’ input in the budget process as well as unclutter council meetings by removing the need for occasional budget amendments.
However, there is nothing preventing department heads from being involved in the decision-making process leading up to a council vote on the change. Further, the budget amendments are infrequent enough that the effect on council meetings is minimal.
Those who say that concern about the proposed amendment is misplaced or unjustified need only look back at the period covered by last year’s city audit.
Auditors noted unchecked decision making and poor internal controls on spending — all connected with previous administrations. But even though Olson and Finance Director Jonathan Locke have worked to correct those problems and institute a common-sense approach toward budget development, the council still exercises an important oversight function.
That fact must not be overlooked.
If anything, what the council needs is more fiduciary oversight — not less.
What the voters should demand in their council members are public servants who are willing to ask the tough questions, review the city’s financial documents whenever possible and take decisive action to maintain a balanced and equitable budget.
Voting to spend money solely on the basis of staff recommendations and blanket assurances about funding sources is what led previous councils astray — and contributed to the city’s financial woes.
While there is no guarantee that council review of fund transfers between departments will have any impact on the city’s overall budget health, taking it away removes that possibility altogether.
The proposed amendment — while seemingly innocuous — serves to weaken the checks and balances between the council and city administrators.
And while the amendment also has the potential to streamline the budget process, the potential cost to transparent and responsible government is simply too high.
This is one time the city’s voters should just say “no.”