Pompous ringmaster, precarious balancing act performed sans safety net and an 800-pound gorilla that brought out the crowds - Thursday's packed budget hearing had all the elements of a small-town circus, including a late start.
What the meeting lacked was an updated budget proposal that took into account Cape Coral City Council's previous decision to peel back the property tax rate a tad or that specifically addressed failed attempts to get public safety personnel to voluntarily take additional cuts while the city's top administrator proposed a raise for himself.
That document, apparently, will come at the final budget hearing set for Sept. 22 and timed, coincidentally, we are sure, to be presented after Tuesday's challenger-laden council primary.
The foundation for this debacle was laid about a week ago when Mayor John Sullivan decided to exercise his line-item veto authority and announced he had zeroed out the entire proposed budgets for both police and fire next year.
Blowback was immediate with city employees, various union reps, and taxpaying residents alike expressing outrage that culminated in a two-hour, sign-waving protest that attracted hundreds to city hall Thursday before the budget hearing was set to commence.
From there, the city's budget hearing process simply unraveled.
Angry residents packed the council chambers to standing room only, prompting the mayor to warn before the hearing even started that outbursts of any sort would be treated with lengthy delays. The resulting crowd murmur resulted in an announced hour-long stall and Mayor Sullivan leaving the dais until coaxed back some 30 minutes later to actually open the session, one of two required by statute as part of the formal budget approval process.
The proceedings got no better as council tried to deal first with Mayor Sullivan's announced budgetary veto to quell the primary controversy - that the city had opened the door to the outsourcing of public safety services, possibly to the Lee County Sheriff's Office, with which the mayor had met, or a private fire services provider which had approached the city.
That was the issue Councilmember Kevin McGrail dubbed the 800-pound gorilla in the room, saying it needed to be banished before council could even get to the scheduled tax rate and budget discussions.
But after lengthy discourse as to whether the veto was appropriately timed, improperly broad, or not in keeping with the charter's intent, Councilmember McGrail withdrew his motion to override as it became apparent the votes weren't there to get it passed.
Instead, council preceded its actual budgetary hearings with a new proposal - that City Manager Gary King be granted the authority to propose reductions in force - layoffs - if he believes that is the best or only way to achieve a balanced budget in light of shortfalls caused by council reducing the property tax rate below that which Mr. King had recommended and union contract negotiations now at city-declared impasse.
Although the motion was quickly cluttered by what appeared to be conflicting instruction - some of those voting to give Mr. King the ability to bring forward layoffs added they were not at all in favor of cutting jobs - the mayor withdrew his veto, saying his action had been misinterpreted.
His intent, Mayor Sullivan said, was merely to implement a "bookkeeping" measure to pressure the city manager to produce a right-numbers budget but "the media" misunderstood this.
As, apparently, had virtually everyone else:
The city attorney, who had cautioned against it.
The rest of council, including his usual supporters.
The city's bargaining units and their memberships.
Other city workers.
And a broad scope of the general public - many of whom also "misunderstood" both budget protocol and the latest proposal affecting public safety as the mayor then interrupted speaker after speaker for straying "off subject" when they tried to voice their opinions on the property tax rate or how the city was spending taxpayer dollars.
Those interrupted, cautioned, and even gaveled down included former mayor Arnold Kempe, a supporter - perhaps former supporter -of Mayor Sullivan as well as anyone and everyone who attempted to criticize any fiscal decisions made or proposed.
Calling the session a circus is, perhaps, too kind. At least at the circus one gets what one expects for the price of admission. Thursday night that expectation - that at a public hearing the public actually could be heard - was stymied and denied.
With three incumbents on Tuesday's ballot, let us be clear here: We have no criticism of council members Bill Deile, Pete Brandt, Derrick Donnell or their fellow councilmen. This was most definitely the Mayor John Sullivan show.
And what a show it was - a veritable embarrassment that debased the public hearing process in an attempt to quash criticism and dissent.
This debacle must not be allowed to repeat Sept. 22.
- Breeze editorial