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Saturday, Feb 22 2014 11:00 PM

Time to end clash of egos at city hall

By The Bakersfield Californian

Like two sweaty boxers staring each other down, many a new Bakersfield City Council member has suspiciously eyed the city's staff -- especially the powerful city manager -- and challenged "tradition" when first elected.

This has been particularly true when the new council members have campaigned as city hall outsiders willing to take on the political machine.

Consider the arrival in the late 1990s of former Ward 3 Councilman Mike Maggard and Ward 4 Councilman David Couch. Both were elected to the Bakersfield City Council with populist heads of steam and full-throated campaign promises. They peppered city staff with questions and festered like thorns in the sides of the council's majority voting bloc. Eventually they settled in and were able to work with their council colleagues and city staff toward common goals.

No one should be surprised that outsider Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, who was elected in November 2012, has been issuing some of the same challenges. Maxwell was not only an outsider in the context of the existing council, his arrival was a disappointment to outgoing Ward 2 Councilwoman Sue Benham, who had backed his opponent.

When he ran for office, Maxwell openly opposed widening the 24th Street corridor -- a traffic bottleneck in his ward that for decades has begged for improvement. And while he now appears to be tilting at windmills in his attempt to block aspects of the project, give him credit for asking questions on behalf of voters who elected him.

But the staff at city hall seems to have started keeping a running tab on the cost of answering Maxwell's questions. The total reportedly is around $50,000 -- and that's just from answering the questions Maxwell raised during the Jan. 22 council meeting. If you include all of Maxwell's questions to city staff since he took office, the tab actually would be around $100,000, according to some in city hall.

Maxwell contends he does not distrust city staff; rather he distrusts the guy at the top. He told Californian columnist Lois Henry he believes he is being fed "partial truths" and "fabrications."

So what should we expect Maxwell to do now? Shut up and not ask questions because the answers come with a price tag? Hardly.

Maxwell was correct to note that no one seemed to be keeping tabs on the cost of staff time to research other council members' pet projects -- most notably the recent (failed) human life ordinance.

There has been a lot of back and forth regarding Maxwell's opposition to aspects of the 24th Street widening and the manner in which staff has responded. There is no need here to sink into the details of the debate.

But it is obvious that a veteran city manager who notes he has served 21 years and worked with 25 different council members can easily make a newcomer look bad if he wants to. And a newbie on the council can bury a staff with dump-truck loads of questions just to flex his political muscles.

Who does either behavior serve? Certainly not the residents and taxpayers of the city. It has been more than a year since Maxwell's election. The "settling in" period should be over. It's time to replace this clash of the egos with trust and respect.

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