Phil Hardberger is so quick on his political feet that even when he's on the defensive, he still ends up controlling the agenda.
This morning's City Council session provided the latest example of Hardberger's impatience with an open governing process. With three all-important SAWS Board positions opening up (for four-year terms), the natural approach would have been to openly welcome applications, allow the Council to interview all serious candidates, and provide some public forums for discussion.
Instead, the City's website provided no notice of an application process. Local environmentalist and water authority Jerry Morrisey says he checked the site repeatedly over the last few months and even contacted City Clerk Leticia Vacek about the possibility of applying for a SAWS board position, but the City kept him in the dark. Early this week, Morrisey learned that a decision had already been made: Hardberger had chosen his three candidates â?? Chris Martinez, Bob Leonard, and outgoing District 9 Councilman Louis Rowe â?? and on April 8 he sent Vacek an interdepartmental memo with supporting signatures from seven councilmembers (incredibly, Rowe, who is in line for the Northeast Quadrant position, dutifully signed on in support of Martinez for the Southwest Quadrant).
When this procedural end-run showed up on this week's Council agenda, it swiftly drew criticism from water activist such as Elyzabeth Earnley, technical research director for Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA), and Annalisa Peace, executive director for the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. Earnley, Peace, and others appeared at this morning's Council session to speak on behalf of Morrisey, and some of his supporters even relinquished their speaking time so that Morrisey could get a full opportunity to make his case. As he later noted in an interview with the Current, this might be the closest he gets to receiving a job interview for the SAWS Board.
With characteristic deftness, Hardberger sensed the political temperature of the room and urged Council to put the matter on hold for three weeks. He complimented Morrisey and his backers, and said no issue was more personally important to him than water. When Council irritant Jack Finger asked what the process had been for the SAWS Board selections, Hardberger responded: "The procedure, for the record, is that the Council selects." Of course, when Hardberger whittles the applicants down to three (before the Council gets to see any applications), and then tells the Council to rubber-stamp those three choices, it's a bit disingenuous to say "the Council selects."
Nonetheless, Hardberger's willingess to slow down the train and consider additional candidates had most of the councilmembers lauding him for his "leadership." Certainly, no one can deny Hardberger's capacity to lead. It's his adherence to transparency that's less clear.