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Wielding Power The Madison City Council Way

May 2, 2017

Over the past days I have been reading (and much enjoying as I always do) the incredible research and writing skills of Robert Caro as he takes page-turners on a splendid journey through the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  One of the main themes that runs through the volumes is how power is wielded once attained.  Sometimes the outcome is grand, mighty, and uplifting.  Other times it can be gritty, numbing, and small.

A matter of law came before the Madison City Council Tuesday night seeking authorization that Police Chief Koval be paid for the legal bills he incurred after a verbal statement made to a Madison resident.  That incident led to a protracted and needless legal and media game played by the ones who are always angry and hungry for their name in headlines.  All this has been embarrassing to view from the perspective of an average citizen.  All this has been most disheartening to witness for those who care about our police department and understand the rule of law in our society.

The Police and Fire Commission heard the case and Koval prevailed.  City Attorney May stressed to the council they needed to pass the authorization since Koval prevailed at PFC.   That the PFC dismissed all the charges and did not give credence to any of them means the council had no option other than to pay the bills.  (How many ways must it be stated so the council can grasp the essential facts?)  May continued to point out that failing to do so would mean further legal battles and create bills that would cost the city even more money.

All that did not stop long-winded and at times less than cogent discussions from council members who seemed more intent on trying to put their own feelings and political points about Koval ahead of what the city attorney wisely encouraged them to do.   When one alder stated on the floor at 11PM she was extremely tired it meant that elongating meetings and not doing the job in a more timely manner created less than clear-headed thinking.  When comments are made simply to make others aware they are weighing a mayoral run means the  ticking clock only gets louder. (Yeah, we know you are running.) It does not move the process forward.

And the process is what mattered.  Over and over I always come back to the process being central to governing.  The payment of these bills could have–should have–been handled two weeks ago.  But by creating needless bumps in the process it only created more hard feelings across the city.  The process also placed the council in a very dim light.

In the end a motion carried that paid for the chief’s legal bills.  For that I am pleased.  But even then the outcome from the council meeting showed that power does not necessarily create leaders.  Alders Clear, Phair, and Skidmore demonstrated that pragmatic reasoning is what stands apart from others who simply proved they were able to be elected but miss the requirement for a steady and reasoned hand of governing.

As Caro would say about Johnson on his best days it was pure brilliance.  But on the days when the better angels were not in control LBJ was lost.  Politics too often intervened at the council meeting when more wisdom was called for.  As a result the whole process was unbecoming for this city.

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