Akron's hidden spending looks bad even if it's proper

Akron Mayor Daniel Horrigan speaks at the 2023 State of the City Address on March 22 at the John S. Knight Center.

(This opinion article represents the collective viewpoint of the Akron Beacon Journal’s Editorial Board, which includes two editors and four community members.)

The job of mayor of Akron is a powerful one by definition with chief executive powers to run the city, hire and fire employees, impose curfews and establish policies and priorities.

The only routine legal check on that power comes from Akron City Council — where 13 members must approve the city's budget, laws and major decisions such as contracts for spending more than $50,000.

But as the Akron Beacon Journal first reported in December and again recently, City Council has been abdicating its spending oversight for the past 56 years by giving the mayor even more power and bypassing Akron's governing charter.

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In just the past two years, Mayor Dan Horrigan has legally used "Section 56" of council-approved budgets to issue 362 contracts worth $121.5 million without council's knowledge. The provision also bypasses competitive bidding designed to ensure taxpayers get a "lowest and best" deal.

There's nothing to suggest Horrigan has misused this power, although some of the decisions have raised a few eyebrows for sure.

Spending millions in the darkness of secrecy directly contradicts the transparency Horrigan portrayed in his Wednesday State of the City address. It's a bad look, especially when former city employees are handed big checks to share information on activities they were already paid for when employed.

Even if it makes sense to use former Mayor Don Plusquellic to assist with updating multi-jurisdictional agreements, secretly spending $155,000 with his consulting company seems excessive when the mayor makes $187,390 per year.

Nor is it clear why Akron needs to hire so many consultants to advise city leadership that's already on the payroll. Forcing the mayor's team to publicly explain spending requests could save taxpayers money.

So, we urge Akron City Council to quickly negotiate with Horrigan on changes to Section 56 that provide the mayor with the flexibility needed to make emergency spending decisions while preserving council's oversight in open public meetings. The $50,000 level also may need to be revised upward as long as the figure can't be manipulated by agreeing to multiple smaller contracts.

In a strong mayor system of government, many true emergency decisions should not need immediate council approval. For example, Horrigan's administration wisely sought crisis communications expertise following the June police shooting of Jayland Walker. Nor would anyone want to wait on utility repairs.

With a March 31 deadline to approve the city's budget looming, Horrigan has offered to pause any new contracts until he and council can hash out details of a compromise on Section 56.

That's fair as long as real change happens.

A footnote on bad legal advice

Journalists have been polling members of legislative boards about their views on pending issues since the dawn of the profession.

So, reporter Doug Livingston individually emailed all 13 City Council members recently asking if they supported the mayor's Section 56 powers. We were stunned to learn Akron's Law Department advised council members against answering to avoid violating the state's open meetings law.

The city's convoluted legal reasoning involves an Ohio case where a school board member initiated an email conversation about responding to a newspaper editorial with a majority of members and then issued a joint response without a public meeting. That's illegal.

Answering — or ignoring — a reporter's one-on-one question is not.

Misrepresenting open meeting law to deter coverage of an administration that has been bypassing public scrutiny of its spending makes this all look even worse.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron City Council should stop hidden spending by mayor's office