Thursday, March 10, 2016
ON THE AVENUES: A funny thing happened on the way to a city council nightcap.
A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.
At Monday evening’s city council meeting, something genuinely rare occurred. I’d previously witnessed it only when the topic at hand was inconsequential, one of insufficient gravity to demand one and a half hours of public speaking time.
Before I get to it, an overview.
At stake was the “Ordinance Adopting Chapter 160: Rental Property Code,” and even before the meeting was gaveled to order, the proposed legislation already had induced labor pains of a profound dimension.
Not only did our chronically reticent Mayor Jeff Gahan shed his diffidence to issue a statement strongly urging the ordinance’s passage, but local realtor Pat Harrison entirely refrained from self-immolation. Discarding her torn and frayed “Gestapo!” card, she testified on behalf of the measure, and urged all citizens in attendance to join her.
Dozens of Harrison’s fellow rental property owners who were packing the meeting room greeted this unexpected declaration of Kumbaya with hard-bitten shrugs. You could almost read their minds: “Well, looks like Gahan tricked Pat into swallowing the Kool-Aid. She’s dead to us now. Who is John Galt?”
He owns a duplex, right?
Harrison kept her front-row seat for the remainder of the meeting, listening as a succession of rental property owners savagely denounced the ordinance, both in terms of its specific contents and from their traditional standpoint that yet again, City Hall was refusing to build consensus, and attempting instead to “railroad” them into compliance.
They may have had something there.
Strangely, some elements of what followed did not precisely adhere to the time-honored cadence, as stipulating that area residents attend council meetings only when mad-as-hell-outraged, better to simmer ominously while heckling cowered office-holders with implied threats of electoral jihad, and fighting to the bitter end.
Not that such sideshows didn’t break out. Of course they did. However, there were significant departures from the script.
For one thing, the electoral comeuppance artillery more accurately resembled a brace of damp July 4 sparklers. Even Tibetan monks in far-off Llasa immediately grasped that the introduction of the rental property ordinance was timed to take place following the 2015 elections, not before.
Council persons would have four long years for short attention spans to take their toll in forgetfulness.
Furthermore, as required by council protocol to state their addresses, a disproportionate number of property owners in attendance were revealed to live beyond New Albany’s city limits, in locales ranging from Sellersburg to Shepherdsville. Ironically, many of the property owners cannot vote here – and many of their tenants won’t.
As the parade to the lectern dragged on, it became apparent that most (not all) property owners present were willing to accept the section of the ordinance establishing a property registration regimen, financed with a modest fee.
It is impossible to say whether this acceptance constituted a conscious bargaining chip, but it was evident that however minimal, collective agreement might be possible on at least one point.
But was half a loaf Gahan’s strategy from the start? People close to the central characters in this story will tell you that while Gahan’s true beliefs can seldom be fathomed, ordinance sponsor Greg Phipps supports it top to bottom.
Was the true believer Phipps intended as the feint, the lightning rod, and the diversion, with his amoral mayoral benefactor all the while channeling cartoonish his inner Machiavellian by assembling the whole nattily attired City Hall gang (good grief, even Duggins was wearing a suit) just for show, all the while content to play for registration alone?
In the end, that’s what Phipps got, a rental registration rump alone, but with an added “something” that Gahan may or may not have been aiming toward, because more than one council member hinted at broad support for the notion of at long last adequately funding the city’s existing enforcement mechanism (read: David Brewer) … and if rental registration is accompanied by serious funding to enforce the ordinances already on the books, what’s the point of bringing back the most recent rental package from the committee’s chopping block?
Do you hear that? It sounds like a toilet flushing.
It came time for Gahan to speak, and bears repeating that such was the urgency of the occasion – Gahan’s morning emission referred to the rental ordinance as a "must" – that yet again, for perhaps the 99th time out of 101 council meetings since 2012, the mayor failed to attend and make his own argument, face to face with dissenting property owners.
As always, the mayor’s platitudes were mouthed by his surrogate, Mike Hall, who likely wrote them in the first place. This revealing episode concluded, finally the council's own discussion began.
After a passionate four-year fling with Gahan, Dan Coffey has returned to a practiced demagogue’s numbing predictability, playing directly to the crowd’s prejudices, biting heads off live pigeons and vowing that yes, praise God, “Free Bird” would be played whether the pointy-headed liberals wanted to hear it or not.
Coffey’s fellow “independent” is Scott Blair, and if the oddity of this couple doesn’t send you to the liquor cabinet, nothing will. Both now compete among the two major parties for scraps of influence, and of the two, Coffey is best placed to snatch them from the banker’s smooth, perfumed hands.
Blair already is showing signs of desperation; each time he publicly uses words like “cost-benefit ratio,” “spread sheets” and “free toaster oven with each new checking account,” what he’s really asking is, “Why don’t any of you love me?”
Of course, Coffey the snarling junkyard dog reads the abacus more clearly than the MBA Blair, because the council’s new math reads like this: Four DemoDixieDisneycrats, three spanking new Republicans and two Free Agents – and Coffey’s decision to opt out from the Party of Them Gays owed to pure calculation, not pique.
You see, Coffey’s erstwhile paymaster, Jeff Gahan, now is utterly deprived of painless, easy victory during those sporadic occasions when a council vote cannot be evaded by decisions taken by his handpicked boards of Works and Redevelopment.
Coffey knows there’ll come a time when that reliable council swing vote is once again needed. His price will be higher than before, but Gahan will pay it, for the simple reason that he’d rather deal with a Copperhead than a Loan Officer – and bizarrely, this comes very close to making sense.
On Monday night, with council discussion concluded, there was an atmosphere of uncertainty. Phipps had performed well, addressing objections to the ordinance and providing the mayor with more political cover than he ever receives in return.
He vowed to bring the entire 22-page document to vote, with no further tabling or committee involvement, and yet had barely finished the sentence before divining a very important fact.
Phipps didn’t have five votes. He may have had as few as two. Now what?
At this precise moment, Phipps asked aloud what might be done to move matters forward, and he was answered by hyper-prepared, at-large newcomer Al Knable, who matter-of-factly stated that while he supported the registration portion, he could not vote for the remainder of the rental ordinance without it first going back to committee for revision.
As though released from bondage, others chimed in, and suddenly, the rare event I referred to at the top of this page unfolded.
Council members actually spoke to each other with civility, even Coffey.
They spoke openly, and talked about separating the ordinance’s sections, reconstituting it, resubmitting it, and voting.
They discussed approving rental property registration, then coming back to the inspection and enforcement sections.
They voted, and registration was approved unanimously on the first two readings. Surely it will receive final approval at the next meeting.
After this, most attendees quickly vacated the room. They left having witnessed a rare compromise, and while proponent and opponent alike may not have been delighted, they also were not homicidal. Given the council’s perennial shenanigans, that’s something encouraging.
Phipps’ question and Knable’s answer might well have been the start of a new council dynamic. Currently there are two natural leaders on this council: Knable and Coffey, and Coffey has traded his vitality for the hope of a future lottery win.
I expect Knable to pursue bipartisan conciliation for as long as Gahan’s rampant ego will allow, and in turn, I see Gahan observing the stock dictum of holding friends close, but enemies even closer.
As for where this prolonged, delicate gavotte takes us, no one can know for sure. All I can say is for the first time in many a moon, I returned home from a council meeting relatively relaxed, and fell asleep quickly, without so much as gin to silence my brain.
These are strange times, indeed – and maybe even hopeful ones.
March 3: ON THE AVENUES: Since 1960, outside looking in.
February 29: ON THE AVENUES REPRISE: Die hard the Hunter, or the political "impossibility" of rental property registration in New Albany (2015).
February 25: ON THE AVENUES: Gravity Head again, because times change, and possessive pronouns change with them.
February 18: ON THE AVENUES: Mourning in America, circa 1984.