Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet dance on the foredeck. A scraping sound, then a tinkle as a piece of ice hits the shiny polished floorboards. The monstrous vessel charges through the Atlantic, impervious to danger.

This image, that sound always come to mind when I recognize the first warning of imminent calamity. I heard that tinkling this weekend, as I read two stories in the News-Gazette.

In the City of Urbana, there are two looming problems. The first problem is the budget. Urbana's city charter calls for an administrative officer, and a budget officer.

 


Sec. 2-54. Qualifications.

The administrative officer shall have qualifications substantially equivalent to a city manager, including educational and professional training or experience in administrative and management principles and procedures.

(Code 1975, § 2.77; Ord. No. 7475-93, § 2, 4-21-75; Ord. No. 7879-12, 7-17-78)


Sec. 2-129. Budget director--Establishment of office.

The mayor shall appoint a budget director in accordance with this Code to serve at the pleasure of the mayor. The budget director may hold other positions or offices with the city and may be paid an additional salary for budget director.

(Code 1975, § 2.80)

I'm sorry I can't give you a direct link to the particular chapter of code. Despite assurances of transparency, Urbana's code is not yet available by direct link.

These are non-political positions. The purpose of removing vital government positions from the whim of the electorate (and elected officials) is to bring a stability to government. It's also to ensure that trained professionals (rather than family and friends of the elected) do the important jobs.

But the civil service is a pain in the ass of elected officials looking to get stuff done. Harping from administrative types — "Hey we can't do that, it's illegal" or "Hey, we can't do that, it'll break the budget" — is the last thing an elected official wants to hear. Who cares about laws and costs? They can totally stifle an agenda.

Let's face it, government moves faster without impediments. Think how much faster Congress could get stuff done if the President weren't there to veto bills. Think how much more smoothly the President could execute laws if that damned Supreme Court didn't keep chiming in "unconstitutional!"

Frankly, patronage works.

Andrew Jackson: Got everybody drunk on the first day of his administration, then introduced the spoils system to American government. This insured that all his friends, upon sobering up, would have jobs. He left office so popular, he was able to pick his successor. And his administration had nothing to do with the immediately ensuing Panic of 1837. Nothing, I tells ya.

Joseph Stalin: The idiotic Trotsky fringe wanted to promote the arts, and fancy book learning. Uncle Joe knew better. Give the important jobs to your friends, and let the little people do the work. If anybody argues about it, chop their heads off. That'll learn 'em.

Ulysses S. Grant: Patronage was a blessing for Grant. He put his friends in charge of the government, and the economy, and he didn't have to worry about either. His friends got rich, and he got to be President of the United States. Twice!

Warren Harding (pictured to the right): Ditto the Grant experience. Harding drank bourbon and played poker with his friends (Prohibition notwithstanding). The friends got rich, and Harding got to be President.

Now you may be cynical enough to think, "but wait Rob, all of these guys left a devastated economy in their wake." And yes, there's that. But they had a good time. And what's more important than that?

Whatever their agenda, they got it done. In some cases, the agenda was to kill the aristocracy and the cognoscenti. That's easy. They're all weaklings.

In other cases, there wasn't much ideology. Just a yearning for elective office.

——

Since Bruce Walden was sacked, no one's been minding Urbana's store. Walden was the Chief Administrative Officer. From the time of his knee-capping, the office has been vacant. Budget management, hiring and firing are now done at the political level.

Has it worked as well for Urbana as it did for Jackson, Grant or Stalin?

Without making any judgment, and without any cross-referencing, the Sunday News-Gazette simultaneously published two stories with dramatic cross-referential implications. The fact that one of these stories recounted a ten day-old event should absolutely not suggest to you that the stories were intended to be read in tandem. And furthermore, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

One story talks of the intense financial pressures on the horizon for municipal governments, especially because of salaries and pensions. The other tells of large salary increases for a group (and possibly other groups) of municipal employees. (No more services, and no more equipment. Just more money for people already on staff.)

There's no suggestion, in either story, that the budgeting problem would be better if it were done at a non-political level, by staffers not subjected to political forces. There's no suggestion that math helps when working with numbers.

This financial shortcoming/big raises dichotomy is only one of the diametric incongruities in Urbana's governance. Recent city council meetings highlighted one of the most exciting among the others.

Gabe Omo-Osagie, owner of Gabe's Place apartments, is the Wesley Willis of our community. He may be a genius, and he may be batshit insane. He's a bit unkempt, and he's raking in the dough. For the first three minutes of a recent council meeting, he spoke cogently about the requirements of landlords to rent to people with criminal backgrounds, and the city's incongruent requirement that landlords be penalized for the criminal behavior of their tenants.

Sec. 12-37. Intent and purpose.

It is the intent of the City of Urbana in adopting this article, to secure an end, in the city, to discrimination, including, but not limited to, discrimination by reason of race, color, creed, class, national origin, religion, sex, age, marital status, physical and mental disability, personal appearance, sexual preference, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, prior arrest or conviction record or source of income, or any other discrimination based upon categorizing or classifying a person rather than evaluating a person's unique qualifications relevant to an opportunity in housing, employment, credit or access to public accommodations.

(Ord. No. 7892-92, § 1(1), 4-24-79; Ord. No. 9596-66A, § 1, 2-5-96; Ord. No. 9798-49, § 1, 10-6-97)

Discrimination. Any practice or act which is unlawfully based wholly or partially on the race, color, creed, class, national origin, religion, sex, age, marital status, physical or mental disability, personal appearance, sexual preference, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, prior arrest or conviction record or source of income of any individual, or any subclass of the above groups.

Omo-Osagie then went on a ten minute rant, which made him seem batshit. I'm sorry I can't give you a direct link to the video. Despite assurances of transparency, Urbana's city council video is not yet available by direct link.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that we should not base our judgments of people on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. Urbana demands that landlords ignore the content of character too, and then be held responsible for it.

That's mean.

And it brings us to the second of the two big problems currently confronting Urbana. We have a crime problem.

Ignoring a person's criminal record is stupid. We keep criminal records as a way of alerting ourselves to the idea that this person may be dangerous. To handicap the would-be employers of Urbana with the duty to employ felons almost ensures that businesses will not open here. To handicap the landlords of Urbana with the duty to house felons almost ensures that apartments will be ratholes.

Yes, criminals have to work and live somewhere. But if Urbana makes it especially appealing to live and demand work here, it asks for the same problem Wisconsin experienced by making assistance benefits easy to attain. Wisconsin got a lot more applicants.

In fact, needful people moved to Wisconsin because free housing and money were so easy to get. Urbana wanted to be friendly and progressive when it passed the anti-discrimination language. But the other forbidden categorizations involve potentially disabling characteristics acquired at birth. You can't choose your race. You don't choose to be ugly. No one chooses to be poor (except the clergy). And none of the gay people I've ever met said "you know, I probably would have been straight, but that just seemed too easy."

You can choose to not be a criminal. But if you do choose to be a criminal, you can live in Urbana.

Come on over!