We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Ombudsman

The Traverse City Commission, after eliminating a few staff positions in the new budget, may now create a brand new position: the Traverse City Ombudsman. All seven commissioners reacted positively to the idea proposed by Mayor Chris Bzdok – after all, who could criticize an idea that would benefit the neighborhoods? Mayor Bzdok says the ombudsman would advocate for the needs and concerns of city residents, solve problems, and investigate and resolve residents' complaints.

Huh. Kind of like a city commissioner.

This sounds like it could be an example, albeit on a small scale, of government expansion where none is needed, a solution for a problem that doesn't exist.

The ombudsman would be chosen and report to either the city manager or the City Commission, beholden to that entity which creates and oversees the position, not to voters in the neighborhoods. Would that ombudsman help and advocate fairly for residents opposed to, say … a gay-rights issue or development issue if it angered some commissioners – the same commissioners who can cut or expand hours, set pay or terminate the ombudsman? If the ombudsman reports directly to the city manager, citizens would have even less control.

As imagined by the Mayor, an ombudsman would help residents navigate the maze of city offices. The president of the Old Town Neighborhood Association said a lot of his neighbors are afraid to deal with "City Hall" because they don't know whom to approach. If you don't know enough to call the planning department for planning matters, how will you know to call the ombudsman to ask for help? The ombudsman would be another layer of confusion. I cannot believe there are that many TC residents unable or unwilling to surf the city website, call the clerk's or manager's office, or a city commissioner for assistance.

During the initial discussion, commissioners imagined a part-time ombudsman paid in the neighborhood of $20,000 per year. That would be a starting point. The likelihood is that it would grow into a higher-paying position and eventually a full-time job, and perhaps someday there would be a Traverse City Ombudsman Department! Such is the nature of government at every level. The ombudsman will always be justifying his/her position, with an eye toward a full-time city job complete with medical and retirement benefits.

Mayor Bzdok contends the neighborhoods need more representation. He notes that downtown merchants, employee labor unions, and even non-profit groups employ government liaison specialists. The difference is that they don't ask taxpayers to fund their staffs. Neighborhood associations could pay professionals to help them deal with the City, or they could just rely on the people they elected to represent them.

Voting against the new ombudsman position is to risk being labeled anti-neighborhood. If this one goes through, it may provide an illustration of irresponsible government spending: creating a new position at a time of budget instability, a position that is non-essential, that duplicates the responsibilities of others, that will inevitably become a political position, and one that will be easier to grow than eliminate.