By Films For Action
Nov 12, 2007
By now, most subscribers to the Grassroots Action list know the basics about the Deciphera story: that on October 23, the City Commission awarded a multimillion dollar tax break to Deciphera Pharmaceuticals WITHOUT PUBLIC DISCUSSION; that the Commission's only discussion of Deciphera occurred behind closed doors, in an executive session held earlier in October, with the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce present; that Grassroots Action filed a complaint with the District Attorney alleging a violation of the state's Open Meetings Act (which requires city officials to discuss public policy in public); and that the District Attorney has asked the Kansas Attorney-General's office to investigate this complaint.
The Journal-World has reported these facts well. But what's the larger significance of the Deciphera story? What's at stake?
Beneath the skin of the story, several issues loom large.
Not least is the continuing viability of the City's tax abatement ordinance, which was unanimously passed by the City Commission in October 2003 – almost four years to the day before the Deciphera vote. This law guides City action with respect to tax subsidies. If this law is permitted to fall into disuse – if the Commission elects to view city tax law as a gentle hint, rather than as a requirement – then Lawrence will effectively have no policy for evaluating and granting requests for tax relief. City Commissioners will simply act arbitrarily, without rule or review
Also at stake is the City's living wage measure, which requires firms receiving City tax abatements to keep their workers at least 30% above the poverty line. (In 2007, the living wage in Lawrence is $10.83 plus benefits.) This law also passed unanimously in October 2003 as a central part of the tax abatement ordinance. If the City Commission now arrogates to itself the right to award tax breaks at will, without observing the living wage provisions of the abatement ordinance, Lawrence will effectively have no living wage policy.
Commissioners might say that they do not intend to alter city tax or wage policy – that the Deciphera decision was a once-only action, not to be repeated – but a precedent is no small matter. If the Commissioners are given the discretion to disregard city policy at will, they will be limited in the future only by their own wishes.
The City Commission, in sum, appears to be challenging city ordinance as well as state law. Even worse, we believe, is the underlying abrogation of democracy and transparency. The Commission has an obligation to invite public and honor input; to seek the widest publicity for its deliberations; to court and cultivate civic participation. Acting arbitrarily and unilaterally to give Deciphera a tax break is a grave violation of public trust in each of these respects. The public is denied the chance to review Commission plans, and previous decisions are tacitly overturned, without appropriate prior discussion.
This puts the entire City Commission under a cloud. Although the Mayor, who has avowed a personal financial interest in Deciphera, recused herself from the final vote, all five City Commissioners appear to have attended the private discussion of the tax break, and four voted to approve it. Curiously, this tax break was never mentioned out loud prior to the vote. The words "tax break" and "tax rebate" do not appear in the minutes of the October 23 City Commission meeting.
Perhaps worst of all, the City Commission seems to be unwilling to correct this grievous error. Tuesday's City Commission meeting has been billed by the City Manager as an occasion for the Commission to "explain" the Deciphera vote – but not, evidently, to reconsider it.
We believe that the only suitable course is to rescind the Deciphera decision, not to "explain" it. The City Commission should obey its own rules; invite Deciphera to submit a request for a regular tax abatement, if Deciphera wants tax relief; and rededicate itself to democracy and the rule of law.
This is a defining moment for the City's elected officials. What they do next will be remembered.
Join us, if you like, at Tuesday's meeting. Public comment is invited. And please note, too, that the City Commission will also consider on Tuesday whether to write a letter IN FAVOR of building a trafficway through the Baker Wetlands. Many Grassroots Action supporters will want to express opposition to that course of action as well.
Thanks all, take care,
David Smith for the Grassroots Action board