Editorial: King of Pops controversy reveals problems within city government that need fixing. Now.
This post has been updated.
It sounds silly.
A three-part series about popsicle vending in Decatur? It was a question I asked myself repeatedly while writing and reporting the “Dethroned” series, a summary of my months-long investigation into the how and why of King of Pops being banished from the Square. It was not a rabbit hole I intended to go down. It was an expensive one at that, costing me hundreds of dollars and untold hours sorting through records, summarizing them and conducting interviews.
But it brought to light several problems with Decatur city government that require correction. I would like to see the city move with more urgency, but I can’t shake the feeling City Hall hopes people will stop paying attention so things can get back to business as usual.
Problem is, business as usual isn’t in the best interest of this city’s taxpayers or business owners.
To briefly recap: Decatur gave Steel City Pops exclusive privileges to vend on the Decatur Square and in Harmony Park. The city says that this is because there’s a policy that the city should give preferences to local vendors, but no formal written policy exists. The city also contacted festivals and urged them to select Steel City Pops as a vendor in addition to, or instead of, King of Pops. The building Steel City Pops rents is owned by a member of the city’s Downtown Development Authority and one of the key players in this story, Assistant City Manager Lyn Menne, draws a retirement benefit from the DDA.
I can’t tell you whether Steel City Pops has a better product than King of Pops. I think a McDonald’s hamburger tastes good occasionally, so my opinion on such things would be suspect.
What I think I am qualified to judge, after a decade of covering local governments and after five years as a business owner, is whether Decatur’s policies and practices best serve the public’s interests. In this situation, the city’s actions regarding King of Pops failed the public on several levels. What the city of Decatur did to King of Pops wasn’t transparent. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t the kind of government the taxpayers and business owners in this city deserve.
It’s time — past time, really — for city leaders to fix these problems. They’ve had more than a month to think about it. I first brought these issues to their attention well before publishing these stories. In the course of my reporting, I’ve reached a few conclusions about what the city needs to do in order to prevent something like this happening again.
1) Adopt a clear policy on preference for local vendors, one that has been vetted by the city’s attorney or outside legal counsel.
This should have been done to begin with, and city officials should not have been telling the public they had a formal policy when they clearly didn’t. The policy needs to define what qualifies as a “local business”, and they need to clearly delineate the way competitive applications will be evaluated. The current informal policy seems to solely favor brick and mortar businesses in the city. Does that mean McDonald’s should have a place on the Square, if they wanted? (Not that I would object, personally.) If it were two local popsicle vendors, how would the city choose between the two? If one business employs Decatur residents but the other business pays more in property tax, who wins? The question gets thorny, quickly, and a sloppy policy opens a lot of opportunity to undermine open and fair competition. That’s why policies that allow a government to favor certain businesses should be formalized, well considered, and subject to public debate. In the meantime, any permits given to any companies based on the current informal policy need to be suspended or the opportunities need to be extended to anyone who inquires.
And if the city can’t come up with a fair, legal and workable policy, then it should probably not allow anyone to vend in public spaces. It wouldn’t be ideal, but at least it would be fair.
2) Advertise the locations and opportunities for public vending, clearly detail the requirements, and transparently solicit permit applications from any interested business that meets the qualifications for the vending slot.
This is the fair way to manage an open policy to ensure it’s in the public’s best interest. City Manager Andrea Arnold explained to me that the city’s purchasing rules do not require a bid or request for qualifications process, because what Steel City Pops is providing is technically a service. If that’s the case, it is not a fair or open policy. A public permit process, properly advertised, allows any interested party to participate. If the city can’t handle that, then it shouldn’t allow vending in public spaces.
3) Enact rules that prohibit city employees from getting involved with the vendor selection process at festivals.
If the city wants to enact a policy requiring festivals to select a certain number of local vendors, that’s just dandy. But beyond that, the city telling festivals to choose certain vendors isn’t something city employees should be doing. It puts local officials in a compromised position, and whether the city employees realize it or not, festivals feel obligated to honor the city’s requests because the city has power over the festivals. Decatur permits these festivals to occur within city limits. So even though festival organizers all told me they didn’t feel “pressured” by the city to select certain vendors, that ignores how power works. Some people have livelihoods wrapped up in these events. They have no incentive to piss off the city of Decatur. It’s much the same as me asking someone I employ for a favor. They might tell me no, but given the power I hold over them, they’re more inclined to say yes.
4) Require financial disclosures for city employees overseeing economic development and members of the Downtown Development Authority. In fact, require financial disclosures for anyone in a sufficiently senior position within the city, including department heads and city managers.
If city employees are going to be wheeling and dealing on behalf of the city, I respectfully ask – as a business owner in Decatur – that the city employees file financial disclosure reports so we can be sure that they don’t have conflicts of interest that influence their actions. These reports would list all their sources of income and any ownership interests they might have in other companies. The only people legally required to file them in the city of Decatur are the city commissioners.
The same goes for the Decatur and Downtown Development Authorities. While there is a requirement that DDA members have a financial interest in the city to serve on the board, there’s no requirement that they must file these forms that disclose what their business interests in Decatur are. That’s important information for the public to have. We need to ensure that our public employees are applying the rules fairly.
I have been asked if I think the building’s owner, Fisher Paty, directed Lyn Menne and other employees to help his tenant. Paty says he didn’t and Menne says the same. I will take them at their word. But, as mentioned above, this isn’t how power works. Power creates biases and blind spots. City employees would naturally be more inclined to help someone who has power over them, as Paty does over Menne as a member of the DDA. The DDA voluntarily gives Lyn Menne a 6 percent contribution to her retirement. Speaking of …
5) The city needs to solidify the arrangement between the DDA and Lyn Menne regarding her retirement benefits.
The DDA’s contribution to Lyn Menne’s retirement shouldn’t be something the DDA can revoke at any time. That needs to be iron-clad so it can’t be yanked away from her at the DDA’s discretion. It creates an inherent conflict of interest for Menne as she engages in economic development activities on behalf of all businesses and taxpayers.
6) The city needs to ensure that all relevant documents are attached to commission meeting agendas.
The Steel City Pops proposal wasn’t attached to the City Commission agenda in March when commissioners voted to reinstate the pilot program allowing vending on the Square and in Harmony Park. In one of those proposals, Steel City Pops asked to be the sole frozen treat vendor on the Square during non-festival days. Three out of five commissioners said they didn’t know about the Steel City Pops proposal before they voted to reinstate the pilot program. Would they have voted differently if they had this information? Would the public have shown up to the meeting to voice its displeasure at the new policy if they’d known what the commission would be deciding? We will never know. I’m not sure why this information was excluded from the documents attached to the meeting agenda and why it wasn’t discussed during the March 18 City Commission meeting. I can only think of a couple of reasons, and neither of them are good ones.
7) City employees need to be directed to provide accurate information to the public when asked.
The city told me Steel City Pops didn’t ask for exclusive vending privileges on the Square. The company did. The city told me it has a policy giving preference to local vendors. The city does not have a written policy. The city told me employees weren’t telling festivals to select Steel City Pops and other local vendors. They were.
This is unacceptable behavior. Public officials should provide correct information when they are asked for it, whether those questions come from the press or any member of the public.
So, there’s my prescription to fix what ails Decatur. And, barring that, if the city commissioners don’t make any meaningful change, then it’s up to the public to demand it. You can either write your commissioners an email or address them in public comments during future meetings. If that doesn’t work, keep in mind that there’s an election this year and there will be three commission seats on the ballot. That’s enough seats to form a voting majority on the Decatur City Commission, and members of that majority could do any number of things, including amending or abolishing bad policies. It’s enough votes to change the way Decatur operates.
Make no mistake: the way Decatur operates needs to change.
Decatur is meddling in the private sector in ways that are unhealthy and erode public trust. This way of doing things in Decatur needs to end. If the government can’t get past its go-along-to-get-along mentality to make the changes that are necessary, then it will be up to residents to make those changes for them. If that doesn’t happen, we can expect to see more wheeling and dealing done in the public’s name even when it is not in the public’s best interest.
Editor’s note: If you missed our series, be sure to check it out.