Whatever the merits of Mayor Ballard’s decision to give his staff huge pay raises, the “optics,” as they say, are terrible. The upcoming city budget will be more than painful, thanks largely to the ill-conceived “tax caps,” and the cuts to services will be draconian in some places. Giving your buddies in the Mayor’s office 20% raises at a time like this is simply tone-deaf. (Someone reminded me yesterday that former Mayor Peterson actually cut pay for his office staff at a time of tight budget constraints.)
For all I know, the raises were an effort to keep people from fleeing the administration; Michael Huber–far and away the most effective member of the Mayor’s staff–has already announced his departure, and this is the time in most second terms when people who can leave–who are actually employable elsewhere–begin their job hunting.
Whatever the calculus, this was a bone-headed move that will make it much harder for the Mayor to get the sort of political concessions he will need during the give-and-take of budget negotiations. It is one more bit of evidence–as if we needed any–that the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” American delusion is just that. Delusional.
Ballard may be a nice enough fellow, but he ran for office proudly proclaiming his “outsider” status. He asked people to vote for him because he wasn’t a “politician”–in other words, because he wasn’t someone who understood how the system worked. Voters bought it; they elected him over two opponents who actually did understand urban issues and politics. The results have been mixed, to put it mildly, and Ballard has relied heavily on outside “advisers” who have had their own interests to advance.
Cities can function with inept leadership when times are reasonably good–when we can afford the learning curve. But when the fiscal belt tightens, we need leadership that understands how cities work, what the priorities must be and how to achieve important goals.
It’s no time for the tone-deaf.