There are appropriate times and places for electioneering by city council candidates.
A public hearing on the municipal budget is not one of them.
At Tuesday’s Killeen City Council meeting, Mellisa Brown and Leo Gukeisen — who are both candidates for at-large council seats in the Nov. 3 election — went to the microphone to address what they termed a lack of transparency in the budget process and also questioned some of the choices made in crafting the FY 21 budget document.
Some of the language was pointed, with Gukeisen characterizing the budget process as “haphazard” and stating that most of the budget hearings were held behind closed doors. Brown questioned why changes to the budget were not put before the public and suggested that money allocated for a police K-9 unit was a poor spending choice.
Certainly, as Killeen residents, Brown and Gukeisen have a right to ask questions and express their concerns. That’s what the public comment period is designed for.
However, what took place Tuesday night at times sounded more like political rhetoric designed to win votes, rather than private citizens seeking answers. In questioning the budget process and those who were involved in it, the speakers disparaged the council members whose seats they were seeking this fall.
Some council members took exception to their comments, as well as their tone — and rightfully so.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Kilpatrick defended the hard work of the council on the budget and said “In six years, six budgets, I’ve never seen candidates for this political body come before the council and berate a council for the job they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”
Councilman Juan Rivera strongly took issue with Brown’s contention that some aspects of the budget were “misleading” and asserted the council didn’t do closed-door meetings.
Councilwoman Debbie-King defended City Manager Kent Cagle for his fairness in developing the budget and noted that Brown and Gukeisen were the only two people who complained about the budget process.
Obviously, the issue here is one of perception — and obviously, that’s going to differ markedly between someone involved in the budget process and someone who is watching it from the outside.
And it’s easy to see how someone outside the process might question its workings.
Several changes were made to the budget this year, partly because of revenue shortfalls brought about by the business slowdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of those changes was the elimination of funding for arts programs, which had received $268,000 through the Killeen Arts Commission in the current budget. However, the drastic change was not publicized, and it required an 11th-hour appeal by local civic theater supporters to get council members to restore $85,000 in arts funding for FY 21.
Another late change was a request for council approval of an increase in city water rates — though revenue from the increase was already built into the proposed budget. When the council declined to move forward on the rate increase, it forced future council action to amend the Capital Improvement Project plan to reflect the lower revenue. For now, as Brown pointed out, the budget numbers don’t add up in that area.
Certainly, it could be argued that the total elimination of arts funding and inclusion of revenue based on yet-to-be-approved rate hikes were errors in judgment on Cagle’s part.
However, it would be unfair to characterize the budget process as “haphazard” or lacking in transparency.
Early in the process, Cagle held private meetings with small groups of council members to apprise them of his priorities, explain the challenges and gather their input. These informational sessions could hardly be labeled as “closed-door” meetings in the true sense of the term.
Moreover, this was the same procedure Cagle’s predecessor, Ron Olson, used during his three-year tenure.
On July 7, Cagle presented the city budget to the council and on the same day, the city posted the entire 435-page document on its website, complete with an explanation of spending choices, easily understood graphics and a glossary of terms.
On July 28, at the council’s request, Cagle conducted a public budget briefing in which he answered questions and highlighted the proposed budget’s key elements. The two-hour meeting drew about 20 people.
On Sept. 1, a week before Tuesday’s public hearing on the budget, Cagle and city staff posted on the city’s website “FY 2021 Proposed Budget in Brief,” a 14-page document that explains funding decisions, details expenditures, illustrates fund balances and spells out how revenue from taxpayers would be allocated for general-fund services.
No doubt, the city could have been more forthcoming about some of the changes that stood to affect residents the most — such as arts funding cuts and proposed water rate hikes.
But that’s more a matter of procedure than one of policy.
The same goes for the city manager’s decision to not have department heads present to make presentations on their respective areas of the proposed budget.
This was brought up by Gukeisen as being problematic, but if the city’s finance director and city manager are present, both should have sufficient knowledge of each departmental budget to answer questions authoritatively.
Certainly, the municipal budget process is long and difficult, as Brown acknowledged in her statement Tuesday. That doesn’t mean it cannot be improved upon — a fact that the city manager and council members would likely agree on.
Further, both Brown and Gukeisen had legitimate points in their remarks to the council — and those deserve to be both heard and considered.
But second-guessing city officials and tossing out allegations of secret meetings does nothing to achieve that goal — especially at this point in the process.
Brown and Gukeisen can maintain that they were speaking as private citizens in their addresses to the council — and indeed, neither one mentioned their candidacy during their remarks.
However, the council venue affords each with television air time on the city’s public access channel, and not just during the actual meeting. The city rebroadcasts each meeting throughout the week, effectively giving candidates who speak on camera significant exposure to potential voters.
Ultimately, this is a free-speech issue.
It would be inappropriate, and probably unconstitutional, for the city to restrict comments by office-seekers during council meetings.
On the other hand, those who do speak on camera gain an unfair advantage over candidates who choose not to address members of the council in open forum.
Perhaps it would be best if the council would develop a policy — with the city attorney’s help — that addresses the issue without impinging on free-speech guarantees.
One such possibility would be to have candidates submit their statements in writing — to be read aloud by the mayor during the meeting. That would limit the candidates’ exposure while still giving voice to their concerns.
No matter what actions are taken, something must be done to restore the respect between residents and our elected officials.
But no city policy is going to make that magically happen.
As in all matters of civility and respect, fixing this problem is on us.