Monday, September 9, 2013

Blamestorming - A Game The Whole Village Can Play

"Blamestorming" was a popular slang word in corporate circles in the 1980's.  It refers to after the fact discussions of what went wrong and the group's attempt to put the blame anywhere but where it belongs.  Right now, we are blamestorming in North Bay Village and the consensus is "blame the lawyers."  That's easy to do.  As a class, lawyers are not popular people and frankly often a pain in the posterior, particularly when they do what you tell them to do even though they told you not to do that.   

We have two sets of village attorneys - one for labor and the other for all other village business, Weiss Serota, the other village business attorney is catching the heat right now.   A good part of that is because the labor attorney have not yet submitted their invoices so they look good but I think that will change when we see the price tags.   Let's talk about Weiss Serota.  

Their duties fall roughly into three broad areas:

  • General government and advising the village on legal issues.
  • Defending the village during legal battles.
  • Reviewing and advising on code issues.   

There's more but those are the main areas.   They charge us for the general government work under their contract and there has been little concern about the fixed price fees for that segment so I'm not discussing that here.  It's the other two areas that we need to examine.  

Our legal bills are high.  Too high.  There's no serious argument that they are not but to understand why, it's important to look at what caused them to be so high.  

In the first instance, defending the village in the myriad of lawsuits falls roughly into two categories - the completely avoidable and the nuisance lawsuits hoping to score a win.  Our village has done a terrible job at this.   

The great bulk of the legal overruns can be brought down to two personnel cases where two police officers were fired and appealed the firing. In each case, the arbitrators found against the NBV police administration and ordered the fired officers' reinstatement, meaning that the village had to provide full back pay and pay all the legal expenses.  This has accounted for close to a million dollars, some of which went to the village lawyers for their work but the bulk did not.  

In the first case, the arbitrator found that the testimony of the NBV police involved in the complaint was so unreliable and changeable that the arbitrator could give it no credence.  That's a huge flag.   

Regardless of the merits, if the testimony is so untrustworthy, then it's time to take a hard look at the PD and figure out how to fix it.  But that didn't happen.  There has been no one held responsible.   

In the second case, the grounds were so weak and so clearly politicized that no one believed there was a chance of winning.   Police chief Daniels should not have started this case, certainly never pursued it and is singularly responsible for the nearly $500,000 of our taxes that it cost.  

Both of these cases, which make up the bulk of the overrun, fall into the "completely avoidable" expense category.  Fun fact, in the second case, an officer is suing the village because his feelings were hurt and the chief named him "Officer of the Year."  See "score a big win."  

To blame the lawyers for this is simply a diversionary tactic.  Daniels owns this and our commission owns Daniels.  

Now in the next area, Code Review, there's a real problem.  Our code is obsolete, out of date, disjointed.  Each request for business permit, each new house with a slight variance, each building, is a struggle between the requester and the  village.  Coding and licensing considerations need to include federal, state, county and village regulations often at odds with one another, and the village code is designed to extract a maximum amount of money from small businesses.   

The cost of these Code Reviews is high and the money is passed through from the requester to the village planners, engineers and attorneys.  It's a low margin business for all concerned.   It should and could be much clearer and simpler.  

But that would take action on the part of the commission.  Action that they have been stubbornly refusing for years.  While it is a low margin business for the planners and attorneys, it has been a high margin business for some members of the commission in the past and remains a honey pot for campaign contributions and personal improvement.   

There is no excuse for our commission not clarifying the coding, not innovating with single step permits, fixed pricing on licenses, transparent code compliance and other simple steps that other municipalities have successfully implemented.  There are reasons for not doing so but they are purely political and sometimes financial benefit for sitting commissioners.  

So when they say "blame the lawyers", understand that the wool is being pulled over our eyes.   The lawyers only have the power to conform, not create, and until we the residents take the real responsibility by insisting that our government spend our money correctly, hell, just blame us.  

Kevin Vericker
September 9, 2013

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