Monday night’s marathon hearing of the City Council Joint Committees turned out to be the longest Council Meeting ever. You’ll recall that this meeting was convened to probe how it happened that the City paid for WPD, WFD and Public Works resources used at the Foxtail Festival. I was there until about 10PM, so missed some of the later testimony. It was demoralizing sitting through this — between the deflection attempts by Velda Jones-Potter, the disregard of the City’s Ethics policy by pretty much everyone including members of City Council and the clear lack of command and control within the Administration. The meeting room was standing room only and many of them came sporting safety orange shirts. Not sure what the shirts were meant to do — for a minute it looked like I had stumbled into a convention of the traffic safety folks that wave you through traffic at construction zones.
In the main, this went better than I expected — Theo Gregory kept it all on track and relatively focused (if too long). I was shocked at a few things — that senior administration staff can be unsure of which of them are responsible for what departments and that the Ethics Policy isn’t the second nature it is supposed to be (either for City employees or City Council). It opened with an almost 45 minute statement by VJP. Much of that part of the statement was in trying to guilt critics, noting that these were great kids, doing what you want great kids to do and they hadn’t even been thanked for it. It was a deflective bit of business — meant to lead people to believe that Foxtail and its organizers were under attack and being denigrated. Of course this isn’t true. Most reports count this festival as a success — great music, good set-up, great audience. It didn’t get as many people as they projected (it was its first year) and it is being tainted by the fact that the City helped manage this event in a way that isn’t available to other events. The latter isn’t exactly the fault of the organizers — they were apparently very wet behind the ears as organizers, but they didn’t make the decision to spend city resources here.
Much of the action turned on a set of meetings the week of September 8 — specifically two meetings on September 10 and one on September 12. An early meeting on September 10 was a regular planning meeting, except the item on the agenda was cancelling Foxtail. Not enough WPD had volunteered to police this event and 4 days out the WPD did not think that it would be safe to allow this to go on. It was during this meeting, an upset VJP told the group that she would talk with the Mayor about police coverage. The second meeting on that day was the Leadership meeting — the Mayor’s Chief of Staff (Matlusky), Chief Dunning, Inspectors Ayala, Cummings and Matlusky’s (and VJP’s assistant) Charlotte Barnes and chaired by VJP. This meeting was unusual since Leadership rarely (if ever) meets about a special event. But this one was focused in on getting WPD to the event. What was really clear in all of the recountings of these meetings was that VJP was there representing Foxtail (sometimes in front of her subordinates) and did not represent herself as a private citizen. And how do you do that with some of your subordinates in the room anyway? WHY would you even put your subordinates in that position? That last question is probably the one that colors my response to this. Because putting your subordinates into a position where they need to accept your own unethical behavior isn’t Leadership worth a damn.
The News Journal does a great job this morning in reporting the particulars in how Velda Jones-Potter abused her authority in this thing. It is worth the read. But even though the Mayor is now clearly telling the NJ that VJP definitely abused her authority, it seems clear that City government continues to have a systemic problem with ethics — particularly in insisting that employees abide by the policy, in routinely employing folks who never seem to learn the lesson of ethics and in implementing this policy on behalf of the taxpayers who need to have some trust in their government.
One of the real disappointments from Monday’s meeting was that not only did some senior leadership not call out unethical behavior, but even several members of City Council did not seem to understand that their job was not just in figuring out who authorized the money, but also in defending the ethics policy of the City. Trippi Congo, Justin Wright, Sherry Dorsey-Walker and Maria Cabrera in particular provided questioning or wrap up statements that tried to make this about defending the effort the organizers put into this OR objecting to the fact that all of this testimony put VJP in a bad character light. Really? This is particularly offensive to me, as no one has criticized the event itself — just the expenditure of City funds. And watching taxpayer money is supposed to be what Council does.
Right now, no one knows exactly what happened. But there are big questions out there, not the least of which is who — exactly — authorized the spending of taxpayer money on this for-profit event. It should be important to find this out — and if not, it will be important to remember this in 2016. There’s also other questions — as in Brandon Potter submitted his RDC application in March, but left his City job in May (according to Matlusky). How much(if any) planning work for this was done on City time? Is the $18K the total of city dollars spent here — it seems that there was some extraordinary effort provided by VJP’s staff to push this through and those costs should be counted. Time to get some answers, throw some sunshine on all of it, if anything to make it clear that that when you embarrass the City, no one keeps your secrets.
The last thing that this really brings into focus is the genuine dysfunction of the African American political leadership in the City. It is way past time to stop operating from loyalty only and demand better behavior and better management from these leaders. Other cities are working their way into a different way of operating — Philly and Newark for example — and Wilmington is always going to have a governance problem if we continue to disregard basic competence in favor of this cliquishness that is strangling us.