Thursday, October 22, 2009
Notes on Meet-the-Candidates in American Fork Last Week: Mayoral Candidates
A detailed but not verbatim account of statements, questions, and answers by American Fork mayoral candidates, from last week's event at Shelley Elementary.
Here are my notes on the American Fork mayoral candidates' portion of last week's meet-the-candidates event at Shelley Elementary. This is the longest of the planned events, and it separated the mayoral and city council candidates, so it's probably the most detailed look we'll get at the candidates.
Before we dive in, let's welcome American Fork's Jared Dalton to our little corner of the political blogosphere. You may want to take a look at his notes on the same meet-the-candidates event. Barbara Christiansen's Daily Herald article is worth reading, too.
Format, Housekeeping, Attendance, Etc.
I have my notes and an audio recording to work from, so I'm hoping to achieve a reasonably high level of accuracy here. However, be advised, as always . . .
I'll bold the questions (which I have also edited a little) and the candidates' names to mark their responses. My own commentary will be italicized and in [brackets]. I hope that's obvious enough.
The format was straightforward: two-minute opening and closing statements, sandwiched between one-minute answers to questions. The two candidates took turns responding to questions first. State Representative John Dougall moderated, as he does well and often. The questions came from the audience. They were written on papers and put into a basket, from which they were drawn (presumably at random).
I don't know who asked the questions, except in two cases in the mayoral part of the evening. One question was mine. Another was a friend's, which I submitted at his request, because he had to miss the meeting. (I submitted the same questions for the city council part of the evening, but they were not drawn then.)
I counted almost 100 people in the audience during the first half of the evening, when city council candidates were answering questions. The audience may have dwindled slightly during the break before the mayoral part of the meeting, but only slightly. (My count did not include the candidates themselves or the members of the sponsoring Youth City Council.) This is pretty good attendance, especially considering the heavy rain which began the evening and an American Fork High School home football game a few blocks away.
[Early analysis: Incumbent Mayor Heber Thompson lost about 70 percent of the vote in the primary and came within 40 votes of finishing in third place and being done. I think that makes James Hadfield the front-runner. However, turnout was low enough that both candidates have to be thinking that a much different outcome is possible in November. Both candidates did fairly well tonight. I didn't hear any game-changers. They both seem to know what they're talking about, which I suppose is a sort of minimum standard for mayoral candidates]
Both candidates spoke fondly of American Fork and especially its high school marching band. Something needed to be said of the latter, and both have some credibility -- standing, if you will -- on the subject. Beyond that . . .
James H. Hadfield is running for mayor because the City needs strong leadership that will focus on the most important issues and care for the City's resources, including the people's tax money. We need to look to the future and prepare wisely for the arrival of FrontRunner and Pioneer Crossing, which will spur development south of the freeway, so we already have our plan in place when developers approach the City with their plans.
Heber M. Thompson spent his entire allotted two minutes on the band, leaving other issues for later.
Question: I know it didn't make sense to rebuild roads right before digging them up for pressurized irrigation, but how did we get to the point where it's been ten years since road maintenance was properly funded in the City budget? What went wrong at the City to allow this to happen?
Heber Thompson: Prior councils and administrations have not made adequate provisions for road maintenance. The City gets about $500,000 per year from gas taxes, which covers regular maintenance, plowing, etc., but there's nothing left for long-term mainenance. This council and mayor have set aside an extra $500,000 through a property tax increase. We now have a $1 million fund to start rebuilding and refurbishing some roads. We need to keep this as a high priority and build up that reserve.
James Hadfield: In winter in Utah, when the ground freezes, the road rises; this called "frost heave." When it goes back down, it often fractures. That's when the cracks start. In March, it freezes at night and thaws in the daytime, which breaks up the asphalt even worse. So you have to keep a good seal coat on top. Many of our roads have failed because we didn't put that seal coat over the years on to maintain them. Mayor Thompson is right about the gas tax. We also have to hold developers to a standard, so when they put in roads, they do it right, with adequate road base and adequate asphalt.
[Both candidates clearly know their stuff, but neither explained how inadequate the present funding is or where we will get the estimated $5 million we need every year for ongoing road maintenance -- that's if we were starting today with properly-maintained roads -- let alone the funds we'll need to catch up. As to the question about what when wrong at the City, Thompson said that predecessors didn't make adequate provisions, and Hadfield identified a specific part of maintenance that didn't get done, but neither explained how this happened.]
Question: Are all streets going to have snow removal this year, or just a select few, even though everyone pays taxes for this city service?
Hadfield: American Fork has arterial-class roads that carry high volumes of traffic, collector-class roads which carry essential traffic to places like schools, ordinary residential roads, and cul-de-sacs. Our public works director prioritizes arteries, then collectors, etc. As a result, people who live on cul-de-sacs don't get snow removed as fast as they would like. That's often a point of contention, but we can all agree that the roads with the highest traffic volume should be taken care of first.
Thompson: The traffic volumes have been measured over the years, and the busiest roads get plowed first. As to cul-de-sacs, we now have two small, new plows that will handle cul-de-sacs, so they should get better treatment than they have in the past.
[Hadfield explained the priorities, which sound reasonable -- even inevitable -- to me. Thompson confirmed that and added some new, relevant information. Between the two, they effectively countered the question's implication of favoritism without calling attention to it.]
Question: Do you favor increased taxes to fund new projects?
Thompson: I'd be fool to say I favor increased taxes. The highest-priority projects need funding. We do a good job setting priorities; there are no trivial decisions coming out of this council. We've prioritized projects and want to fund the highest priorities with the funds available from property taxes, sales taxes, impact fees from new construction (which have mostly dried up with the recesssion). Property taxes went down this year; we did not increase them, knowing the economic conditions.
Hadfield: You have to understand a couple of things about property taxes. The schools take the biggest slice. The county takes a slice. Then the City takes a slice. Sometimes we can drop our tax rate, but your taxes don't go down because the other entities increase theirs. I do not encourage or propose tax increases; I think we've seen enough in the past four years, and the City's getting its fair share. Things need to level off and the economy needs to recover before we look at any more.
[If roads are not the biggest concern among voters in this campaign, taxes are. Both candidates shied away from the idea of tax increases in the near future, but neither promised never to increase taxes. The latter promise would be foolish, in part because of the perverse way Utah law calculates each municipality's certified tax rate, so that a council could set a lower rate than last year's but be legally required to call it a tax increase; and rates can go up, but in some cases it wouldn't be considered an increase. By the way, I have not sensed great enthusiasm about fixing this silliness among the state legislators I have asked about it -- not even among the ones who understand it. Hadfield mentioned recent tax increases and hinted that they were necessary -- I agreed with the first but thought the second too large, back in the day -- and Thompson did not mention them.]
Question: Will you abide by the Utah Open Public Meeting Act and conduct public business openly?
Hadfield: It's a state law. I don't know why it would even be a question or a concern. It's something we all have to aware of.
Thompson: I couldn't agree more. We're required to review this law every year. Other bodies are subject to the same law. We're very aware of it. The council doesn't let us go astray on this issue.
[If this were an issue, it would be a very important issue. Right now in American Fork, it's only an issue in the minds of people who assume without evidence that the fact that someone holds public office automatically means that someone must be hiding something. Later addition: Note one reader's dissenting opinion in the comments below.]
Question: Five bond issues were put on the ballot last November. Given a do-over, would you change anything about how the City approached that election?
Thompson: Those bond issues were an accumulation of projects and priorities that the community has put before the council for a number of years. The council and mayor determined that we would put them to a vote and see if the citizens wanted some of those projects. Given a do-over, in view of what happened to the economy, I would probably have had two or three, with very specific projects. One would have been land for the cemetery. I actually tried to persuade the council to do this, but obviously not very effectively.
Hadfield: I think that all five bonds were necessary; there was value in all five of them. If the City could have done one thing differently, if they had a good public relations person working on these from start to finish, I think two of the bonds could have passed. One would have been for the cemetery.
[In fairness to the mayor and council, I note that decisions about bond issues on last November's ballot were made before last fall's economic meltdown. The economy already wasn't faring terribly well, but even opponents of the bond issues on the council didn't know at that point how far things would fall or how fast. It's also worth noting that Mayor Thompson speaks of the council's decisions, etc., but does not mention that there was considerable dissent from a minority of the council, including over the mayor's and the majority's eagerness to ignore professional advice that five bond issues at once is far too many, and a presidential election is a particularly bad time to put a bond issue on the November ballot. I believe Hadfield's meaning in saying all five bonds were necessary is that all five projects are necessary.]
Question: American Fork has an ordinance requiring a city administrator. Do you support having such a professional manager run the day-to-day operations of the City?
Hadfield: I certainly do. I think that's one thing the City has missed the last four years. It some ways it has taken too much of the mayor's time to manage things that should have been handled by a city administrator, and I would propose that we return to that form of government as soon as possible.
Thompson: You have the luxury of having a full-time mayor who has had a lot of experience in running large organizations. I find it no big problem to do that. With the growth of the city -- we're about 28,000 people now -- in the future, at build-out, let's say in 2040, with a population of maybe 45,000 people, you may need a very professional, extremely capable administrator to cover the daily affairs of the City. As it stands now, I don't think that's necessary, but I think it's worth discussing, and I think we ought to be planning for that eventuality.
[With Hadfield apparently unwilling to make a foolish promise never to consider a tax increase, so the obvious, easy issue in this campaign doesn't clearly divide the candidates, this matter of a city administrator is probably the chief difference in the campaign. It's tough to sell to voters, but it looms large in the minds of some city leaders and staff, and has done so for years. It's also a tough case to make in a one-minute response. I have heard Hadfield explain elsewhere that, for him, this is not just a matter of following the law that says we have a city administrator and a part-time mayor. He describes some significant dysfunctions in the City's administration, which he traces to the absence of full-time, professional city administrator -- who would, by the way, leave a part-time mayor free to step back from the daily minutia and do his part-time mayoral duties. I don't think Hadfield would be running for mayor if he did not differ with Thompson on this issue. In any case, there's some room for disagreement here. If you believe that things are running fine with a full-time mayor -- on a part-time stipend -- and without a city administrator's considerable salary, the present situation looks like a nice economy, especially in lean times. If you're on the other side, it's not hard to conclude that having an effective City administrator would increase the quality of decision-making and the efficiency of operations to a degree that would more than defray the cost of having one.]
Question: Do you support open discussion of city issues? If so, how do you intend to facilitate that? Do you believe that some issues should be handled in private? If so, which ones?
Thompson correctly explained that everything except discussion of pending litigation, the purchase of real property, and issues related to the performance of an individual employee must be public; these three items are required to be discussed in executive session. He agrees with the law. Hadfield agrees completely with the mayor.
[They're both right. I applaud Thompson for his diplomacy in not acting like this was a silly, repetitive question, and I applaud Hadfield for taking less than ten words to agree with Thompson's concise explanation of current law and practice, saving most of a minute for attention to useful questions.]
Question: In your opinion, what is the most important responsibility of city governments?
Hadfield: First, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This includes providing for public safety, which protects life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We've talked about services like the police department and snow removal. Quality of life issues, such as parks, open space, and recreation and arts programs, are also important in city government.
Thompson: Quality of life, broadly defined. The mission statement of city says, we want to assure the health, safety, and welfare of city residents. There are lots of programs with lots of funding; we try to find an appropriate balance among them. Ultimately, it still comes down to health, safety, and welfare.
Question: I'm often frustrated by a lack of information concerning City affairs. How will you facilitate better communication between the council and the community?
Thompson: We haven't done a very good job. We've attempted to have a public relations person, but when we had to balance the budget, we didn't want to lay off any employees, and that was one of the first things to go. I think it has to have a better priority. We've made a fairly good attempt in the newsletters that go out with the monthly utility bills to educate the public about what's happening in the community, but that's fairly limited. You need to go to the City Web site for more information. We're going to pay attention to public communication much more than we have in this next year. I agree it's a great need.
Hadfield: American Fork City owes Barbara Christiansen a great debt for her years and years of work reporting for the American Fork Citizen. When that local paper went away, so did much of the City's ability to communicate with the public. Many people of my age and older aren't computer literate and don't search the Web, unlike some people who are still up at 2:47 a.m., sending me questions about road repair. We have to do a better job, whether it's with newsletters or e-mail or other media about what's going on at the City.
[Note that American Fork City had a contract with a public relations firm in the previous fiscal year; that's what Mayor Thompson said was cut, not an employee position. You won't find me disagreeing when they say this needs to improve, or when they say the Citizen's demise made it more difficult. I don't see that either candidate explained what, specifically, might be done, or where the failings have been in the recent passed. But it's good that they agree, for now, that public communications is important.]
Question: Have you read and studied the material on ethics and financial disclosures in the candidate guide and the enclosed copy of the Municipal Officers and Employees Ethics Act in its entirety?
Both candidates said they have. Hadfield noted that he resigned as City Engineering Department Supervisor on September 15, in compliance with the law. He went to the City Recorder to clarify a few points. Thompson backtracked, proposing a round of applause for Barbara Christiansen, who is still "doing the best she can with the facilities she's got," including "no newspaper, except the Herald." Returning to the question, he has read the candidate materials repeatedly.
[I believe Barbara's was the longest ovation of the evening, but I didn't use a stopwatch.]
Question: What is your strategy to hold the City fiscally responsible?
Thompson: Elected officials have a fiduciary responsibility. We have a balanced budget. The law requires that we keep a financial reserve of between 5 and 18 percent of projected annual revenues as a reserve. Our objective is 15 percent; we're now at about 13.8 percent. I think we're doing pretty well in these difficult economic times, with reduced sales tax revenues. Councilman Gunther doesn't let us go astray in matters of fiscal responsibility.
Hadfield: Fiscal responsibility is key. You need to identify priorities and cut out the fluff; there are opportunities for a lot of that. Some public servants, who are charged with spending other people's money, take this responsibility less seriously than others. There are any number of instances in the past in American Fork where this responsibility has not been fulfilled as completely as it should have been.
[It's always easier to see potential cuts, when you're on the outside looking in, than it is to make them, when you're on the inside and facing the actual decisions and their consequences. Thompson provided useful detail about reserves, and Hadfield pulled up short of mentioning specific past problems with fiscal responsibility that might have occurred during the Thompson administration -- if he even thinks there are any, which he didn't say.]
Question: What is your plan for the south part of American Fork, south of I-15, especially regarding roads?
Hadfield: Most of the roads south of I-15 are county roads, chip-sealed and not built strongly to carry heavy loads. That's why they're breaking up as FrontRunner construction has begun. The county doesn't built the same width of roads as the city, either. Developers will have to rebuild those roads to city standards, and the City must properly inspect them to make sure it happens.
Thompson: We'll follow the same standards for roads as we have in the past. The standards are good. Some of the roads which handle regional traffic will be state-funded and subject to state standards, which are also good.
[I can't argue with either response. The standards seem to be adequate, if enforced, so inspection is key. I would have liked to hear more discussion of other planning for development in the same area, but one minute is not very much time.]
Question: Isn't it unnecessary and therefore wasteful to paint yellow and white lines on every residential street?
Thompson: There are state laws governing the marking of roads. Some of the newer white lines are marking new bike and walking trails. We follow the state standards.
Hadfield: Some of the requirements are federal, too. They're all set forth in a thick manual, the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The City follows the various standards very closely. It doesn't maintain the equipment to paint lines; it's cheaper to contract that out.
[It's a fair question, and it's nice that some residents are looking for possible economies and willing to ask about them.]
Question: There's a large portion of downtown that is "no parking." There's no place to park. Where are we supposed to park?
Hadfield: What is downtown? Does it stretch from the old Wal-Mart to the new Wal-Mart? From Big O Tire on the east side of town to Der Wienerschnitzel on the west? Our city has a historic downtown between 100 East and 100 West; that's one area that the City has some interest in? What is the public's opinion of what downtown is and what should be done? I'm concerned that many of the property owners in our historic downtown don't live in or near American Fork and don't take care of their properties; all they care about is their monthly check, so many of our buildings are run down.
Thompson: We have a study underway by the Mountainland Association of Governments (MAG), to give us some suggestions about handling parking, walkability, appearance, and other issues. It's unfortunate that some long-time business owners have neglected their responsibity for parking. One property owner downtown, Bill Jacob, has been very responsible in providing and maintaining parking for his buildings. Across the street, behind some of those buildings, you'll see that there has been no investment in the parking there for many years. We need to get property owners to improve that situation.
[The MAG study is serious and broad in scope and should be very interesting. The definition of downtown does need some clarification. And neither candidate suggested how we might hold property owners accountable for their parking or other maintenance.]
Question: How will you make sure that the wants of the people are heeded over special interests?
[My digital recorder was right next to me on the front row. At this point, you can hear me whispering something like, "Oh, good grief!" But that's another story.]
Thompson: That's a tough question and a tough thing to do. We listen in city council meeting. We do some surveys. We recently installed some speed tables near a school in response to neighborhood concerns; we even revised their location some after receiving some public comment. When all that was done, some people came and asked why we have speed tables, and complained that they slow down the traffic. The city council has a tough job here, but these are honorable, smart people, and they'll make the best decisions they can.
Hadfield: You have to be accessible to the people and listen to what they have to say, but you also have to be big enough, with broad enough shoulders, that, when they don't hit the target, you're able to look them in the eye and tell them no, and explain why. You can't try to please everyone all the time; you need to realize that and consider what's best for the most.
Question: In relation to transporation issues, what are your concerns about 100 East and 300 North?
Hadfield: The state plans to take over responsibility for 1100 East, making that a state route, and giving 100 East back to City control. 100 East is very important, but I think a lot of traffic will move to 1100 East. 300 North has always been a collector in the City's general plan; we should keep it that way.
Thompson: The transfer of 100 East to the City is a proposal, not a done deal. We've had a lot of success working with UDOT; they're generally reasonable. We think it's a bad trade, and they ought to continue to be responsible for 100 East. There's not a lot of flexibility in what we can do with 300 North, but we do need to make sure we have adequate east-west routes in other parts of the city. We have a good general plan; we'll continue to follow it.
Question: How do you plan to revitalize downtown and to build an arts center?
Thompson: The people who just want basic services related to health, safety, and welfare aren't going to like that question. We have to have a balance in our community and try to provide for the interests and quality of life of all our citizens as best we can. As to downtown, the MAG study that is ongoing now is going to give us some really good direction. We have an Arts Council with some very high-powered people on it, including Jeff Woodbury of Woodbury Corporation, which developed the Meadows. They're going to be very good at finding funding. We'd love to have a first-class arts center in this city.
Hadfield: I concur with the mayor. The historic City Hall has become the administrative center for the Arts Council. Our amphitheater is a jewel in the rough. We have a fine history of music and other arts. Our cemetery pageant is very important in bringing people to American Fork and projecting an image for the city. That's just one thing the Arts Council does, and we need to support them in any way we can. The good news is that there are other ways to get funding and grants so it doesn't impact taxes.
[Actually, the body Thompson mentioned is not the Arts Council itself, which has been around a while, but its new, very able governing board, which was recently created, largely due to Councilmember Rodeback's stubborn insistence and extensive labors.]
Question: From what areas of the City's budget and programs will you pull the money needed for road construction?
Hadfield: Road construction normally is a result of growth, and those costs are generally paid by developers. It's maintenance of existing roads we're struggling to fund through various existing taxes. We need to look at other ways of doing this, as well. The state can help with state roads. MAG helps us with federal funding for some of this, like the current improvements to 50 South.
Thompson: I don't think the mayor and council would favor reducing a lot of programs to fund roads. I think we have a pretty good balance of programs. But we do need some extra funding, whether it comes from stimulus, business growth, or economic recovery (which will probably happen in about nine months). We have to very creative and look at all possible sources, because it's going to strain our finances. We need some good, creative solutions.
[I don't know how the mayor knows the recovery will happen in about nine months.]
Question: Where you do suggest the City cut back in its budget in order to get out of debt?
Thompson: The City's not in debt, for its operating budget. We have a balanced budget. We just don't go over our budget. We run the City just like you run your house. Your expenses can't exceed your income for very long. We have not hired some people we needed to hire. We've postponed some capital equipment purchases. We've leased some things we ordinarily would have purchased. We've done everything we could do to trim our sails and tighten our belts. I'm proud of our budget director and the council.
Hadfield: When Smith's came to American Fork 25 years ago, that was the City's biggest revenue producer. Now it's gone. That's about a quarter of a million dollars we lost in tax revenue; K-Mart (then Sears Grand) was about the same. We bonded for improvements at the Meadows; the interest on that bond is about the same as the revenue we lost from those two businesses.
[Thompson claiming the City is not in debt, when it has maybe $70 million of debt, is not quite the howler it seems to be. He simply answered the wrong question, making the very common mistake of mixing up debts and deficits. There is no budget deficit; the budget is balanced, as state law requires. Hadfield described one facet of the problem but didn't answer the question, either; perhaps he made the same mistake, which would explain his not pouncing on Thompson's error.]
Question: How should the City fund the revitalization of downtown? Should there be more bonds, more taxes, or other borrowing?
Hadfield: I believe the City's doing what it should downtown, with the MAG study. (MAG does long-range planning for Utah, Summit, and Wasatch Counties.) We need to look at that study when it's finished. US 89 goes right through the middle of town; to be healthy, we need to look at that.
Thompson: US 89 running through the heart of the city may give us access to some federal and UDOT funding. We need to look at the MAG study results. There will be funding from other sources; we don't need drastic measures to fund downtown revitalization. What will revitalize downtown is smart business people, finding their niches, keeping their customers happy, and doing things the big boxes can't do.
Question: Do you agree with the legislative intent of the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) and its recognition of the public's right to access records and the public's right to privacy where personal data gathered by government is concerned?
[Oh, give us a break already! Suffice it to say . . .]
Both candidates understand and agree with the law.
Thompson: I have great respect for my opponent. He's been a responsible supervisor and has contributed much to the City. He's a good man. Here's my political DNA. I believe a public servant should keep his word. When I ran four years ago, I said we'd solve the water problem and fix our police wages; we did that. Other things we couldn't do because of the economy. I believe in looking for ways to improve our processes. Skills are important; I have them. Planning is the heart of government. Service is at the heart of what we do; I have an ethic of service. People are the most important thing, having good relationships with people. Lastly, my political DNA includes respect and reverence for this country and what it stands for.
Hadfield: Thanks for sitting on these hard chairs for two and a half hours. There are things that I hold dear that I would like to work at and see come to pass. I know the city. I know the neighborhoods. I know the people. I know our uniqueness and our diversity; that diversity makes us great. American Fork isn't all high-density housing with no place for the kids to play. . . . The people make our city great. I want to work with you. Please consider voting for me on November 3.
[I don't see a clear victory here by either candidate, and there were no potentially legendary gaffes, unless someone wants to make too much of Mayor Thompson saying the City is not is debt, when he was thinking of deficits instead. I don't think either candidate did a particularly good job of highlighting the differences between the two. In any case, a draw, if that's what this was, probably helps Hadfield more than Thompson; Hadfield appears to be the front-runner, since the primary, so anything that doesn't change the game is good for him. Moreover, Thompson is the incumbent, so if the challenger sounds as well-informed as he does, and doesn't have a record to defend, that helps Hadfield, too. ]
I'll be back with a less-opinionated treatment of the first part of the evening, involving the city council candidates, as soon as possible.
Leisa Hatch comments (10/24/09):
Thank you for your commentary on the meet the candidate night.
I am a little surprised at your seeming impatience towards the questions on OPMA and GRAMA, especially since #5 on your list of "if you want my vote" is to know and understand your "Sunshine Laws." OPMA (Open and Public Meeting Act) and GRAMA (Government Records Management Act) are essentially the "Sunshine Laws" in Utah. Though I didn't write those questions, I believe it is fair to expect that a potential Mayor would understand and be committed to follow these ordinances.
The history that led to a work session that you blog about here illustrates at least one instance where there was a potential problem with OPMA. The meeting you blog about was held on 6/4/09, but there were three previous meetings noticed; only one actually produced a quorum. The first was noticed to be held on 5/16/09 to begin at 10:00 a.m. The agenda item was "discussion and action on downtown parking." Certain (but not all) stakeholders were invited to a meeting on the same day to begin at 10:30 a.m. They were told it was to be about "placing certain restrictions on parking enforcement." What? Under OPMA is it possible to notice one meeting and then hold two? Or can you notice a meeting at one time and then hold it at a different time? Is it proper to notice action to affect only downtown parking and then pass an ordinance that would apply to the entire city? I think the obvious answer to all these questions is, no. The good thing is that the meeting was never held because a quorum could not be gathered. But that does not diminish the seeming lack of understanding of the law, or in the alternative the willingness to circumvent the law to accomplish the desired outcome.
A second meeting was noticed for 5/18 with the same kinds of problems, it also did not take place. Then finally on 5/21 a special session did take place with the intent of taking action on downtown parking and an ordinance. The agenda had been expanded to two items, so they could have passed the ordinance. Though it may have technically complied with certain aspects of OPMA there were still some possible problems with intent.
The ordinance was drafted and put forth for action, prior to any "regularly scheduled" public meeting. It would have been nearly impossible (or at least very difficult) for anybody who might have interest in this action to know about it in advance. According to the minutes of the meeting, even council members were not provided with context for the ordinance prior to the meeting. The public was provided with nothing. Fortunately, members of the council asked enough good questions that it was put off for a future "work session" which was held on 6/4/09.
So, I guess that my point is even though I did not ask the question, it is an issue in my mind. I do not believe that it stems from an assumption without evidence "that someone [who] holds public office automatically . . . must be hiding something." It is about following a process. Elected officials ought to understand and be committed to follow the process, and it ought to be important.
Also, the mayor pointed out that the city is required to review this law every year. The training for this year is contained in minutes found here. The public record shows that legal counsel did not believe that the beautification committee had to abide by OPMA because they do not expend funds. This is incorrect. The handout attached to the minutes and the law requires public bodies that are funded (even in part) to comply. This public record does not give confidence to me that good information on OPMA is being understood and distributed to elected officials. If further (and corrected) training was given, I have been unable to find it in the public record.
Finally, as far as GRAMA is concerned, I was able to obtain a document that was titled "a sequence of events leading to the drafting of [the] ordinance" on the above issue. Even though it was the one document that could shed light on the deliberation and discussion that went into the mayor's decision to have the ordinance drafted and brought before the council, the release was originally denied because, it was felt that since the council failed to act, the release would not be beneficial. Then I was told that legal counsel advised that it was merely "personal notes." It was released through GRAMA, but the mayor's comments at the meet the candidate night seemed to indicate that he still believes it was protected under the "personal notes" clause. I would assert that the title of the document indicates the notes were not personal in nature and being the last draft after an action was [not] taken should under GRAMA be available to citizens.
So, the "Oh, give us a break already!" commentary is puzzling to me; especially if "knowing and understanding your sunshine laws" is important to you. My response would be hooray! They both are on the record (if a meet the candidate night is on the record) that they agree with and will follow the intent of GRAMA.
David Rodeback comments (10/24/09):
Thanks for your detailed explanation. I absolutely agree with you about the importance of city officials knowing and complying with GRAMA and OPMA. However, we have very limited opportunities to question our local candidates, and the questions which particularly frustrated me were the third and fourth questions on essentially the same matter, in a meeting in which there was time for only 21 questions -- and that meeting was our longest opportunity to hear the candidates together. I thought that the voting public would be better served by hearing the candidates' views on more issues, rather than requiring them to state for the third and fourth times (in slightly different words) their commitment to open government and the laws which require and define it.
Open government is a crucial thing, and asking candidates about it is fine with me. But, to my mind, elected officials are fully obligated to comply with these laws whether they are "on the record" as knowing and being committed to them or not.
Further, I do not have your detailed knowledge of the documents and chronology of the matters you describe. I don't know, for example, whether every meeting you describe was one that would have to be noticed, like any meeting where a quorum of the city council is present.. And, for what it's worth, I am reluctant to find differences of interpretation (as in, how the law applies to a specific document which may be in a gray area) as sufficient grounds for judgment that an official is defying the law, especially when that official is acting on the advice of legal counsel.
And I would contend that an official's obligation is to comply with the language of the law, not directly its intent. The language is the law, and questions of intent, which may sometimes be quite clear, are more commonly complex, ambiguous, and subjective.
Copyright 2009 by David Rodeback.