At a recent luncheon, a businessman newly transplanted to Salt Lake City remarked that he had heard a lot of rumors about the political control wielded by the LDS Church. For example, he said, he had heard that the church controlled the Salt Lake City Council.
Gov. Norm Bangerter quickly set the man straight."No one controls our City Council," the governor quipped.
Any hopes that the Salt Lake City Council would peacefully adopt Mayor Palmer DePaulis' proposed $80 million budget should be laid to rest.
It's no secret that council meetings have been marked with divisive battles since the last election changed the power structure. Some members have been so vocal about the chasm separating the legislative and executive branches of city government that the rumors must have reverberated all the way up to the governor's office in the State Capitol.
In the most recent budget meeting, council members Willie Stoler and Florence Bittner made it clear they don't trust either Mayor Palmer DePaulis or his staff. They charged that the mayor's staff was delaying or "stonewalling" their information requests, and they wanted to know if they had the power to issue investigative subpoenas.
Stoler said he hasn't received the salary information he requested.
"Very frankly, I've got the impression that someone is trying to withhold information."
"It takes a week (to get information), when you can do it on the phone in five minutes. We only have one month to do the whole process," Bittner complained.
Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck countered the charges, saying the council was overstepping its legislative authority by ordering around the executive staff. "In essence, you are giving orders to someone who works for the mayor."
Mike Zuhl, chief of staff in the mayor's office, said city department heads have been instructed to be responsive to council information requests.
"We've been pretty darn responsive. There's no attempt to frustrate or deny you that information. We can't always get it as promptly as you would like," Zuhl said.
Bittner and Stoler also directed Council Executive Director Linda Hamilton to seek legal advice from independent council attorney Bill Barrett. For weeks, City Hall employees have speculated about the prospects of a first-ever mayoral veto of the council's adopted budget.
Stoler and Bittner want to know if the mayor holds line-item veto authority, and they say City Attorney Roger Cutler's opinion wouldn't be sufficient because he represents the mayor.
"I can't see how one attorney can serve two masters on the issue of a line-item veto," Bittner said.
"If you've got a real clash, having an attorney won't help. It will be decided in court," Fonnesbeck said.
All of the questions were sparked by the mayor's proposed budget, which he delivered to the council Tuesday.
DePaulis pitched his budget as fiscally conservative, pointing to massive cuts to the police and fire departments and the elimination of employee raises. Those cost-cutting measures brought this budget in 1.5 percent lower than last year's adopted plan.
But some council members don't seem to agree with the mayor's budget priorities. In the council's first meeting since receiving a copy of the proposed budget, some members already started number tinkering. The council members have just a month to make all of their adjustments before budget adoption day, June 9.
Stoler has previously questioned what he terms "budget cushions." Earlier, he questioned the city's early retirement incentive plan, under which he stepped down from the police department, and the executive compensation plan. Now he says he plans to cut half of the entire city's $644,000 travel budget in an effort to come up with merit raises for city employees.
Florence Bittner has repeatedly called for savings by cutting the city's mid-management staff, a group she used to be a part of until she retired from her city job upon election to the council. Alan Hardman questioned spending $200,000 in order to hold onto 12 acres of free land offered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to the city for recreational purposes, which East Bench residents say should be used to build a swimming pool complex badly needed by inner city residents.
Hardman also laid out a plan to make massive cuts in city programs to eliminate a $4 a month garbage fee, levied against residents last year. The fee generates more than $2 million to operate the city's mechanized garbage pickup system.