Agreeing to Disagree
February 5, 2009 2:48 PM
When I was on the Dane County Board one of the people I liked the most was Lyman Anderson. Lyman was a cantankerous, crusty old farmer and I was a quiche-eating liberal from the heart of Madison. But we got along. One reason was that we didn't question each other's motives or make things personal. We disagreed but we were agreeable about it. Lyman and I didn't agree on anything, but there was no one I respected more.
So, I'm surprised when I hear from people that simply disagreeing with the Transit & Parking Commission over fare increases or asking them to take up the issue again somehow implies disrespect for them.
Here's what happened in the latest chapter of the fare increase story. I had an idea. (This is almost always a bad start.) I thought I knew four things:
First, the Council isn't scheduled to take up the override of the TPC's action on the fare increase until February 24th and there would be a TPC meeting before then on February 10th.
Second, where the TPC really stood on this issue was a question of which members were present at the time of a vote. One member of the commission who might be amenable to the full fare increase wasn't present at the last meeting and she might tip the balance the other way when she returned.
Third, some members of the TPC, including the chair, felt that they didn't want to be overridden by the council.
Fourth, the TPC really hadn't finished their work because by raising fares by half the amount budgeted by the council they had left a budget deficit of about $210,000.
So, I talked to the member who was absent at the last meeting and she said she'd vote for the full fare increase. Then I talked to the chair who said he'd prefer that this get decided at the TPC. I also talked to council leadership and they agreed it was worth another try at the commission.
It seemed like things were lined up to get this done at the TPC. Now, it appears that there is little enthusiasm for taking the issue back to the TPC afterall. Since that's the case, I won't push it. We'll deal with it at council on the 24th as had been previously planned.
What I most want to address here is the notion that has been going around that simply disagreeing with the TPC on this matter (or with other citizen committees on other issues) somehow implies lack of respect for them or their work. That's just not the case. It can't be true that the only way we can show respect for someone is to agree with them. If that were the case, I'd feel disrespected all the time.
So let me make this clear. I respect the work done by the TPC. I have heard their arguments and they have merit. I just believe that when you weigh the arguments in favor of a fare increase against those against, the scales tip strongly in favor of the fare increase. I know that reasonable people disagree on that and that's fine. But reasonable people can disagree and still respect the other side.
A big part of the problem here is not the people, but the process. What we have here is what could be a unique situation in City government. Most citizen committees act in one of two ways: either they make recommendations to the council and I that we have the final say on or they make decisions that are never reviewed by the council.
But in the case of the TPC and fare increases it works the other way around. The council had already acted in passing the 2009 City budget to budget for a fare increase. If the TPC action stands it would essentially have vetoed the council's action, which in my view and the view of many council members was inappropriate even if it was technically within their authority. What I was trying to do in giving the TPC another run at it was to let them set the exact fares within the context of the budgeted amounts for fares set by the council and I.
At the root of the problem is an ordinance that confuses the lines of authority. The council and the mayor are responsible for the budget, but the TPC is responsible for setting fares. So, what happens when the council budgets for higher fare revenues than the TPC is willing to go along with? Well, this happens.
Another problem is the different political pressures that come to bear on the TPC and the council. The TPC hears heavily from those who want neither service cuts or fare increases. The council feels these two pressures plus the pressure not to increase taxes too much. This, I think, is the primary structural reason that the council supports fare increases while the TPC doesn't.
So, it's not personal and it's not a question of who respects who; it's a question of a structural set up that is muddled. At some point we need a cleaner, clearer ordinance on this subject.