How a 6-3 liquor tax vote turned into 0-9

Within the past few weeks, the Champaign City Council has proven that elections are very capable of shaking up the political movement of even a small, non-partisan, local body.

After initially voting 6-3 to impose a new tax on package liquor sales in May, just two weeks after two new city council members took their seats, the council reversed itself last night when it voted unanimously to end talks on the 4 percent surcharge.

Amidst what were much louder, more specific arguments about the tax, there were philosophical arguments from current and past city council members that took on a broader context.

Former mayor Dan McCollum called it "seat-of-the-pants decision-making." Former council member Vic McIntosh said it was a tax without a purpose. Former mayor Jerry Schweighart said that, after spending months preparing what he thought was a balanced budget, "the council caved in" after a new mayor used his authority to initiate straw polls during study sessions (in Mayor Don Gerard's own words, his "bully pulpit").

And then last night, council member Marci Dodds referred to the "theater" of how the initial 6-3 vote in support of the tax was taken in May. She didn't mention Gerard by name, but his initiation of the first vote was more abrupt than the council typically saw in 12 years with Schweighart running the council meetings.

Here's what I mean: During study sessions, the council will spend time gathering information from city staff, comments from the audience and comments from themselves. City staff will usually have prepared a number of recommended alternatives on which they can vote, and the mayor is free to decide which straw poll to initiate.

On May 17, the alternatives were to either direct staff to investigate a new revenue plan or not.

The council heard the presentation from city staff, asked a few questions and heard from the audience. After what seemed, to me, like uncertainty about whether the council would vote to keep the front desk jobs at the police department (uncertainty because, I would think, they knew they had to pay for it somehow), Gerard admonished the council for not being sure about their vote.

"I spent six months fighting for the opportunity to be the conduit of the voices of the people," Gerard said during that May 17 meeting.

Voice raised, he was referring to his six-month campaign for the office. He said the preponderance of the "tens of thousands" of people he talked to during the campaign wanted to see the police front desk jobs saved.

"I have done my homework for the last six months, and I am exceptionally disappointed that those who are in charge of making this decision, those who have the vote, who are to be the conduit of the people, don't seem to be in touch with the people," Gerard said.

He called keeping the police front desk jobs a "no-brainer," and then he used his "bully pulpit" to invoke the straw poll on the 4 percent liquor tax, which was meant (partially) to pay for those jobs. And he did, in fact, pound on his desk a couple times -- a fresh change from Schweighart, who usually showed no emotion while he was mayor.

In the time each individual took to think about their vote, their strained facial expressions and their under-their-breath comments, everyone could tell it was a stressful vote for the entire council.

So let's fast forward to last night, when the council unanimously voted against the 4 percent tax (although the police jobs are still on track to be restored). Keep in mind, this is after weeks of public disapproval from business owners and more council discussion about the tax.

Council member Michael La Due chimed in, not so much about the tax itself, but how it had come about. Usually, the council study sessions are relatively informal.

"We've never deviated from the informality in the past until quite recently," La Due said.

He called it a "heat-of-the-moment" vote, and a sudden change in the 11th hour of a 12-hour process (the 12-hour process being the months' long process of composing the budget).

In government, he said, there is a "level of predictability that maximizes (citizens') potential to participate." In my own words, I'll say that's why we have open meetings laws, public notices, agendas, etc. You can never predict which way a vote will go. But you can usually predict when, where and on what issue a public body will vote, and you can be present to voice your opinion if you wish.

In talking to liquor store owners the day after the May 17 vote, they had no idea the tax was coming. Some of them commented that it was my story that ran in the newspaper the day after the council had seemingly made its decision that they found out about the issue.

Their comments in the weeks that followed reflected that. Several people -- business owners and politicians -- said the process was moving too quickly and that the council needed to sit and think about what they were doing.

La Due had another suggestion last night: "Maybe it's time to think about codifying them. Codifying the process by which things come to a vote." To clarify, that means study session issues, like the liquor tax -- regular council meetings, where things get final approval, are very formal and very much codified.

Gerard last night said, "There was no malice meant," and his intention was only to find the revenue to save those police front desk jobs. And he still hopes he can save them.

He also suggested that the whole progression of how this happened mirrored a similar situation in 2007. The council had approved a citywide smoking ban, and after the election, the political complexion of the council changed. Two weeks after the new council took their seats, a sudden vote to repeal the 3-month-old ban passed.

That's what elections can do.

Some of the council members who changed their minds said they were swayed by the disapproval of the liquor store owners and the potential implications that the owners brought forward. Those were concerns that they did not hear on May 17 when they supported the tax.

Dodds made another point last night: "Process is important. Lousy theater, but good governing."

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gdf wrote on June 16, 2011 at 1:06 am
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I'm trying to think of an instance in the past 20 years when a Champaign mayor used a "bully pulpit" approach to getting what he wanted. I'm not coming up with a good example.

The reality is that the mayor has only one of 9 votes. He can't afford to burn bridges with the other members of the council. I think he would find that it could get pretty lonely in the center seat.

Maybe this is will ultimately be an educational experience for him. There are several lessons to learn: Every action has a consequence. Putting on a tie doesn't automatically convey authority. Sometimes you only THINK you have a mandate.