July 2008 Editorial Winner

After the fact

By Wayne Trotter, Countywide & Sun (Tecumseh)

No one could accuse Tom Schrzan, Shawnee’s most colorful and outspoken city commissioner, of playing election-year politics with the Police Department because he’s not running for re-election from Ward 2. But it doesn’t stretch credibility to note that the grilling Mr. Schrzan and Commissioner Marva O’Neal gave Police Chief Bill Mathis over training Monday night was curious at the very least. Members of the commission are free to ask any questions they’d like but the proper time to raise these issues was when the 2008-09 budget was being fashioned and adopted a month or two ago, not after the fact.

The two commissioners put Chief Mathis through the paces largely on grounds it would be better to divert already-allocated training money to hiring more officers and sending a few even briefly out of state could strain staffing levels back home. While we will grant that both commissioners voted against the budget when it was adopted 4-3 back on June 2, their basic complaint then was an extra $100,000 the city was channeling to the Shawnee Economic Development Foundation, not Police Department training money.

So Mr. Schrzan and Mrs. O’Neal, who is seeking re-election from Ward 3, essentially appeared to be fighting a rearguard action. They came close to winning partly because the commission, like the Police Department, was not at full strength Monday night. Vice Mayor Pam Stephens and Commissioner Carl Holt were both out of town on previously announced absences. Mrs. Stephens is serving the country overseas in Georgia (the country, not the state) as a member of this nation’s reserve forces. And only one week previously, Mr. Schrzan had argued vigorously during a special session that the city shouldn’t begin the time-consuming process of looking for a new city manager until all commission members could participate.

Shawnee being the home of the hidden agenda, we’re sure some out there will be asking what Mr. Schrzan and Mrs. O’Neal were really looking for Monday night. Did they just want to give the city’s outspoken police chief another dose? Were they carrying water and making points with the police union? Did they think they had the votes in line? Were they just trying to burn 20 minutes at the outset of another predictably long commission session? Or were they simply emphasizing a point they felt needed to be made?

We don’t know and frankly don’t care to further speculate on questions that can never be answered. But two points that didn’t get a lot of attention during the discussion did occur to us.

One is that after the commission sets aside a certain amount for training or anything else, challenging otherwise appropriate planning on grounds the money should be moved to another category is just another way of wasting money. A budget is a plan of action and properly implementing its vision takes time and effort. If major components of a new budget are going to be thrown out the window seven days after they take effect, surely people such as Chief Mathis and his assistants could find other more useful ways to earn their city salaries.

The second is that obstructionism on a split and shifting commission has cost Shawnee dearly during the past four years and that comment applies to both camps, not just the one that often includes Mr. Schrzan and Mrs. O’Neal. One of the reasons former City Manager Jim Collard lost his job presumably was that getting anything done was taking way too long. But if blame could be apportioned for that, at least as much of it would fall in the commission chambers as in the manager’s office. After all, the only officially stated rationale for Mr. Collard’s dismissal was a change in the direction of the commission, not a shift in the way Mr. Collard was doing things.

Hopefully, all that will shortly become water under the bridge. The budget already is. It has to be changed from time to time but those decisions should be driven by cash flow or altered circumstances, not basic principles which supposedly were decided at the outset and passed on to administrators for implementation.