It's Not about a Chopper

Topeka Police Chief Ron Miller had it right in his comments following Tuesday's City Council meeting - the Police Department is caught in the middle. The controversy over the council's approval of a new helicopter for TPD isn't about whether or not you support the police helicopter program - it's about how they went about it and whether it was right or wrong. Briefly - last summer, a majority approved entering into a lease-purchase agreement for a second TPD helicopter; the mayor vetoed it; the council didn't have the votes to override the veto; last month, Councilman Brett Blackburn moved to have a "communication" added to that night's agenda, authorizing City Manager Norton Bonaparte to enter into the agreement; it was voted on and approved that night; Mayor Bill Bunten vetoed that communication; supporters say it is not a vetoable measure. Besides, they say, it's too late - the chopper's already been ordered and we have a $70,000 down payment on it. Let's take the helicopter out of this for a moment and put it in truly outrageous terms. Say some of the council members think the city should buy them vehicles - after all, they go to a lot of functions in their roles as council members and they need a way to get there. And let's not forget we'll be representing the city, so let's look good doing it and make these limited-edition $100,000 sports cars. One council member approaches the city manager with this idea, he says, "Why not? I like these people and they do work hard." They work up a communication authorizing the city manager to sign the contract. The measure gets added to the agenda at the beginning of their next meeting - not all of the council members knew about it and no public notice was given that such a measure was being considered. It passes the council on a 5-4 vote - enough to be approved, but not enough to override a mayoral veto. Public outcry ensues - why are my tax dollars buying council members sports cars? Too bad, say the supporters, the city manager already visited the dealership and put down $70,000 to order the cars. Maybe that's not comparing apples to apples, but if this process was used with a popular program, like the police helicopter, what happens when it's used for something a bit less palatable? The situation brings some tough questions for Topekans. First, was the communication a way to get around the checks and balances of government or a legitimate tool for overcoming what could be perceived as a power struggle? If it's legitimate, how much do we trust that it will always be used in the taxpayers' best interest. If not legitimate, but we still like the helicopter, do we let it slide? If we don't let it slide, is $70,000 worth it to save the total $800,000 cost of the helicopter? How would you like to see this unfold?
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