Councilor Lukes: Council Fails to Protect Taxpayer in “Wedding-Gate”
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Answer: When legal precedents make bad public policy.
The current flap concerning the City Clerk’s private wedding business at City Hall displays how a long term legal activity can become bad public policy.
For years the City Clerk has been performing weddings at City Hall during regular work hours and keepings the fees. By his own estimate, his weddings number between 500 to 900 weddings a year. When a news story by Shawn Sutner appeared in the Telegram two years ago, I filed orders regarding wedding-gate. Those orders were sent to standing committee where they continue to languish.
Common sense dictates that fees for services performed by a public employee on public property during regular work hours should be public money. Not so. The Clerk keeps all those wedding fees for himself! Why? Because the Ethics Commission has ruled that the process is legal.
How much does the Clerk earn from his City Hall private wedding business? No one knows, except the Clerk. The City Council refuses to ask him to submit that information even though the information is a matter subject to public disclosure.
The next common sense question is; how did seven members of the City Council decide the City Clerk deserved a raise of $10,000.00. The raise is in addition to his current salary of $125,000.00(not counting income from the weddings, a stipend of $4,000.00 for attendance at City Council meetings and other benefits). The purpose of the raise is to compensate the Clerk for giving up wedding fee income. The intent of the City Council is that the fees go to the city treasury instead of to Clerk.
The next step in applying common sense to this solution is to question how did the Mayor and six other City Councilors decide on the solution to the wedding-gate issue.
I frankly have no answer to that question because I was excluded from participating in the private discussions. Perhaps my colleagues understand that I believe the better solution is to end weddings at City Hall altogether. But the lure of additional income going into the city treasury is too attractive for most City Councilors to ignore. Unfortunately, the City Council solution provides no mandate for the Clerk to earn the same income from weddings as before the salary increase or even enough income to pay for his salary increase.
The majority of the City Council, including the Mayor, mishandled the wedding fee issue by assaulting the basic concept of democracy and by preventing any public discussion of the matter on the Council floor. Of course, it was legal to use parliamentary procedure to prevent any City Council debate on the matter. The excuse, albeit a poor one, amounted to not wishing to offend the City Clerk. Better to offend the public instead! By cutting a deal behind the scenes, by ramming it through to a vote without debate and by dispensing with transparency and public decision making, they joined the ranks of Massachusetts politicians who survive in a culture of bad government. The Council chose to hide behind legal tactics and avoidance of hurt feelings. The resolution of the wedding fee issue did not have to be personality driven or inflammatory or controversial if common sense and leadership prevailed.