The Augusta city government has taken many small steps away from transparency lately
If you take a lot of small steps in the same direction you can go a long way.
The Augusta city government has taken many small steps away from transparency lately and that regression continued Tuesday night.
The City Council has added a consent calendar to the agenda. Many boards and committees use such an agenda item for mundane, regular tasks.
Approval of minutes, appropriations ordinances used to pay regular city bills and other items required to be on every agenda often end up there.
Until Tuesday night, I had never seen two vehicles purchased on the consent agenda. If someone watched the meeting on Channel 7 – assuming you could hear the audio - or attended the meeting, unless you had an agenda, that resident would have had no idea what happened when the council wrapped three items and two trucks into one vote.
If you went to the city’s Web site, followed the city on Twitter or picked up an agenda at the meeting, you know the council bought a Ford F-550 dump truck for $51,959 and a Ford F-150 Super Cab with topper for $22,897.
New City Manager Gabe Gonzalez told the council these items were ministerial and routine in nature. He said the transparency of the items was achieved when the council budgeted them last summer. That would make sense if the council always spent every dollar they budgeted, or if no item ever came in over budget.
No one knows if these trucks came in at budgeted levels or if the city overspent or underspent expected expenses by 20 percent.
For the record, only one bid was received for the dump truck – typically a red flag, especially when that bid is well above budget - and two bids for the water department vehicle.
The combined low bids were 10 percent above budgeted estimates. In order to get under budget, the city had to downgrade both sets of specs. The dump truck is now a regular cab instead of a super cab. The water department had to sacrifice the toolbox and topper option. Even with the changes, the line-item will still be more than $2,000 over allocated amounts.
That is worthy of discussion and is anything but routine. Those changes to the trucks the city built into the budget are significant.
Of course, you could find out if you call a council member, visit city hall or if you keep a copy of the city’s budget cross-referenced with color-coded highlighters on your bedside nightstand.
Or the council could simply discuss the item in open meetings like they have for more than a century. It hasn’t been a problem before.
Representatives have a duty to constituents. That duty is not to tell citizens “good luck” when they try to find information.
If this were the only concern, I wouldn’t be concerned at all. However, recent changes to the council procedures include abbreviated minute recording, and replacing the semi-weekly informational memorandum in lieu of a private weekly e-mail only to the council.
That is great for the council. But no one else knows. In the past, multiple news stories have been written based on project updates, notes and other entries on that memo.
Readers and the general public have no idea what is happening with city projects. Even the council has asked for updates at the end of meetings that haven’t come in the past month.
Did the council get an answer? Probably. Only 10 people know for sure.
It isn’t like the only person with a problem with this steady march toward opacity is a newspaper publisher who celebrates Sunshine Week each March.
A couple of council members wanted to keep the proceedings more open and accessible.
Councilor Ron Reavis said he didn’t like the new consent calendar.
“Personally, I don’t like this practice,” Reavis said. “To me it doesn’t help transparency.”
Paul Belt, the newest member of the council from Ward Two, said he didn’t see the need for it because the extra discussion costs only a few minutes at each meeting and letting people know what the council is doing is worth the time.
Councilor Matt Childers also said he was principally against cutting down discussion. He said that was the reason he and some others on the council work hard on social media to keep people informed. However, he said he was willing to try the new method if that was the desire of the rest of the governing body.
But the rest of the council agreed to add the new consent calendar to each agenda.
I think the ultimate goal of the process has been achieved. No questions were asked about any item Tuesday night. With limited information, what do you ask?
No council member had any comments.
The new meeting style includes, read the title of the item on the agenda, have the city manager read a paragraph from the agenda to the council, make a motion, second and vote. The meeting ended in 30 minutes.
That is great if you have better things to do, but not if you care about your city government.
All of these changes may meet the letter of the law, but they do not inform the public and definitely do not build public trust.
This is not transparency. This is by the book, letter of the law, lowest common denominator government.
Augusta is not a lower common-denominator town.
The citizens here don’t pay the lowest tax rate allowed by law. Our city staff doesn’t accept the lowest salaries allowed by law.
Augustans shouldn’t have to settle for C-minus work.
If you don’t care, do nothing. You will have far less to worry about because you will have no idea what is going on.
If you care about how your tax dollars are spent, contact your councilors and the mayor and tell them to hold these discussions in public so you can stay engaged.
Kent Bush is the publisher of the Butler County Times Gazette and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org