Government Transparency: Opaque?

3/29/09

Last Wednesday, during the operations administration meeting, I brought up a potential ordinance that I wrote about, several weeks ago, on this blog.

The idea was that “ALL” ordinances and resolutions must be made available to the media and city council a minimum of one news cycle (defined as the Wednesday or Saturday edition of the Missourian) before it can be considered in a public session of the city council.

Initially I wanted to see the entire ordinance posted in the paper so the citizens could see exactly what is going on. But after looking at the printing cost, I determined that agenda items with plain language descriptions of ordinances/resolutions would be much more economical.

If an interested party wanted more detail, they could go the City of Washington website and read the full ordinance. The printings cost would be about $40 per week to have the information published in the Missourian.

Now, let me digress: Sometimes city councilmen can get City Council packages the Friday before a Monday City Council meeting. Not only does this make it difficult for the council to properly research agenda items but can make it equally or more difficult for citizens to know what government is up to.

For example: On Wednesday, 13th, 2006, the City Council voted unanimously amending Title V of the city code relating to certificates of occupancy and inspections of existing homes and buildings. (See story in Missourian.)

Here is where it gets interesting: Quoting from the Missourian, ”
No one expressed opposition to the code amendment Wednesday night. ” This is really rich considering no one in the community knew about the upcoming vote. Maybe that is because the story came out in the Missourian on the same day and hour as the votes was being cast – possibly giving some hint as to why “No one expressed opposition to the code amendment Wednesday night.”

Since 2002, the city had tried to pass this change to the code and every time was met with stiff resistance from the community. And only with a “no notice” vote, was it ever passed – all but annihilating  public opposition.  As if this wasn’t enough, the city went on to authorize buying private information from Ameren UE, so as to more effectively manage this new “safety” program of occupancy inspections. Some have gone so far as to suggest this entire ordinance was nothing more than an attempt at the gentrification of Washington.

Thomas Paine, in ‘Common Sense’ wrote: “Time makes more converts than reason.” I will let Paine’s words and ideas speak eloquently in ways I can not.

Bringing us back to the present, I was shocked (and somewhat appalled) when some on the city council actually felt the citizens have enough transparency in the way government works. Some actually, and with a straight face, suggesting $40 per week was a waste of tax payer money.

Councilman Dill asked me how many people would actually read the agendas. My response was that if only one read it, it would be worth the expense. The Mayor, along with Councilman Mohesky, opined that sources currently in place are more than adequate for an informed community to be in the know.

Current sources would be the broadcast video/audio of each city council meeting (even though this system is currently being upgraded and still has unacceptably poor quality issues). The Mayor intoned that people could go up to city hall and read the public postings or view the channel 10 bulletin board and that the staff does a more than adequate job getting information out to the public.

So there you have it; go to city hall each week, and read the public postings or watch the channel 10 bulletin board – never mind that most of us don’t even get channel 10. Or you could just view the agenda on the city website – after the vote has taken place.

Transparency is vitally important because it shines an uncomfortably bright light on some things that government would prefer kept in the dark. Apathy empowers government and if a mathematical equation should be derived expressing this relationship, it could be shown graphically that the less people know about their government, the more apathetic they become. Transparency is one of the few disinfectants that can keep and purify government and give citizens an active voice in how their money is spent.

Ironically,  shortly following this discussion on how $40 was too great an expense for a cash strapped city budget, what did we discuss? Kicking in between $12,000 and $23,000 dollars to help pave a joint use parking lot, that we don’t own, but us.

Sometimes being a councilman can be a real head scratcher.

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