An ordinance to limit City Manager Troy Schulte’s power to spend tax dollars without authorization was bounced back to committee by the City Council Thursday, after he and his staff presented a long list of proposed changes to the measure.
The move, which passed by a slender 6-5 margin, was a tactical political victory for Schulte, who briefly threatened to quit last fall after Councilman Quinton Lucas introduced an ordinance that limited his power to sign contracts without council approval.
Schulte and other top officials are presently allowed to solicit bids and sign construction contracts for up to $1.3 million without the council’s consent. They can sign for other expenditures of up to $400,000.
The Lucas ordinance would trim Schulte’s signing authority to $750,000 for most contracts and $50,000 for consultants or other personal services. The proposal put the city more in line with contracting rules in other municipalities with a council-manager form of government.
Lucas and his five council co-sponsors contend that the measure was designed to create more transparency in city business, not as a personal rebuke to Schulte.
But the ordinance’s supporters (Councilmen Lucas and Lee Barnes, and Councilwomen Katheryn Shields, Heather Hall, Teresa Loar and Alissia Canadyucas) have all expressed degrees of unhappiness with Schulte’s management style, which they say has been more aligned with the wishes of Mayor Sly James.
Schulte has opposed the Lucas ordinance, contending that it would place undue burdens on staff without improving city government’s performance.
Neither he nor any of his deputies, however, offered testimony before the measure was passed out of the council’s transportation and infrastructure committee last week. But Schulte drew up a two-page list of proposed changes, many of which go far beyond the scope of Lucas’ proposal — in some cases actually reducing council oversight of contracts.
Schulte denied that the changes were intended to kill the ordinance. But he noted, with some edge to his voice, that the Lucas proposal was an opportunity for a deep review of the city’s procurement rules.
“They want policy options, we’re going to give them policy options,” he said.
Councilman Jermaine Reed, the transportation and infrastructure chairman, called for referral of the ordinance back to committee to give staff a chance to weigh in.
“Many staff have indicated a number of concerns that they have,” Reed said.
Lucas said the ordinance has been on the committee docket since November and that there had been adequate time for Schulte and his staff to make their suggestions.
“We’ve had an intelligent conversation on this ordinance since November, and I think it is right and appropriate for us to resolve it today,” Lucas said, adding that the opposition “relates more to the politics of the situation than it does to discussions with staff.”
But the motion to re-commit the ordinance passed narrowly. One of Lucas’ co-sponsors, Shields, was out sick. Had she been present, the vote would have ended in a 6-6 tie, which means the motion to return the ordinance to committee would have failed and the full council would have debated it.
Some members favorably disposed to the proposal said there was no harm in further discussion. Councilmen Scott Taylor, Kevin McManus, Dan Fowler, Councilwoman Jolie Justus, Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner and Reed voted to send the matter back.
Mayor Sly James, who has called the ordinance “generally a bad idea,” went home earlier in the day with the flu, aides said.
Schulte’s changes would push the threshold for manager approval of construction contracts back to $1 million and all other contracts for consulting or personal services to $250,000.
Schulte also proposed to remove the council from any scrutiny of procurement contracts –– agreements with vendors to purchase goods or services. Schulte said that prior to 2013 the council did not review procurement contracts because they involved funds already appropriated by council during the annual budget process.
The counter-proposal would also extend the maximum length of a contract approved by the manager from five to seven years. Schulte said it would increase efficiency and result in better prices.
Schulte was so perturbed by Lucas’ original proposal in October that he effectively dared the council to fire him.
“If the core issue is, quite honestly, that they don’t like my management style or where they think I’m taking the organization, that’s easy,” he told The Star.
“That’s seven signatures on the paper with the mayor and nine without the mayor, and I’m gone tomorrow. I’ll earn more money and sleep better at night. Life’s too short.”
The next day Schulte said he was just venting and instead of threatening resignation he should have “gone home and kicked the dog.”