“Why are you doing this?” has become a common question recently.
It’s been asked both in an accusatory, “who do you think you are?” tone, and in a questioning “how did this begin?” inquiry. I will address the later here.
I wrote a letter on April 4, 2017 as the election came to a close, and while the question of a direction forward for Nauvoo still seemed to be in question. In it I spoke about the benefits of transparency, both the institutional and the individual kind. So we won’t revisit that here. But some additional background will be provided in this document.
Fighting a Bad Idea
In February of 2016 I attended a City Council Meeting. The discussion at the time was related to a new Utility Tax the Mayor and City Council were proposing. I was not in favor (and still am not). I believe that it is one of the most regressive, and painful taxes that a government can impose. By regressive I mean that it penalizes the poor more than the affluent. The poor are more likely to live in a rental home, more likely to have poor insulation, less efficient appliances, improper windows, etc. In short, they are more likely to have a higher cost for energy than those who can afford to improve their homes with new LED light bulbs, higher efficiency heating and air conditioning, better windows and insulation, etc. The only solution for a poorer resident is to turn off the lights, or turn down the heat in winter. That’s regressive, taxing the poor at a higher effective rate than everyone else.
In those meetings I tried to suggest reviewing the need for additional funds, the possibility of reducing spending if the need was that dire, and looking at other means of revenue generation that were not so regressive. I felt at the time that my suggestions were not considered, and that the decision was already made. In fact the quote made by City Officials at the time was that “we’ve already been working on this for too long.” When the issue of a referendum to give the people a voice on the matter, I was told “the people would never vote for a tax.” When asked about spending, I was told “you don’t understand.” When the Utility Tax was approved, without a single dissenting vote by the City Council, I decided I wasn’t willing to be frustrated, so I would just not get involved. A decision I now regret.
Public Statements and Behavior Of City Officials
In the most recent campaign for Mayor, I attended the candidate presentations. I was surprised to hear representatives for the City state that contracts were put out for bid (still waiting on those documents), that the State Bank fees on the public notice were for purchase of a police vehicle (not true), and that they weren’t sure what the American Express charges were for (city employee pension fund). And then to see the behavior of City Representatives when the spending on their contracts was questioned, and hear that if we wanted to know we just had to ask. Since I couldn’t find information that supported the statements being made in these meetings, and was hearing that people were asking for information and being denied, I decided to get answers myself. And so our journey began. My first Freedom of Information Act request was submitted on February 27th of this year. I still have not received all the information requested. The Attorney General’s Office got involved, and they still have not received all the documents they requested. This has led to further questions by the Attorney General’s Office into how the City operates.
Since then I have been told that my requests are “voluminous”, a big word for “your asking for too much.” And now, that they are “unduly burdensome.” We asked the City to provide what they feel is a reasonable timeline to provide these documents to the public. We have not received that response. There is even a story going around that we have been responsible for over $5,000 in legal fees from the City Attorney. Our requests are not responsible for the attorney fees. The City’s attempt to refuse documents to citizens and the Attorney General’s Office is responsible for attorney fees.
Many cities have a list of documents that require review, redaction or denial if they are requested, and are then able to efficiently reply to any other request by just providing the information. The City of Nauvoo has taken the approach that only what MUST be released will be released. The City Attorney is involved on every request to ensure this is information that must be released. So, there have been hours and hours of attorney time spent to decide what we, the citizens, have a right to see that is in the possession of our city government. These are our documents, we have just asked our employees to hold them for us.
The City has spent hours and hours of City Attorney time fighting the release of the contract of the Tourism Director. They even went so far as to remove the Hotel Motel Board Meeting Minutes that included the discussion of the contract in 2013, with no explanation, and still no response to questions about it. Now the Attorney General’s Office has even called into question the operation of the Hotel Motel Tax Governing Board.
The documents in question also include:
- Copies of Invoices paid by the City
- City Council Meeting Minutes
- City Ordinances and Resolutions
- Contracts That Spent City Money
- Expense Reports that Used City Funds
- Records of City Receipts
The Attorney General became involved when the City refused to provide information. There are now three cases at the Attorney General’s Office relating to the City’s release of information, and its conduct of meetings. Three separate agencies are involved in the criminal investigation related to Nauvoo City government.
“When Will You Stop?”
The question that follows “Why are you doing this?” is often, “When will you stop?” Our immediate response is “stop what?” If they mean stop the FOIA requests, than the answer is: “when everything is available to citizens,” when citizens have the information they need to make informed decisions, and City government is no longer able to say “you don’t understand.” But, be assured, the information will be available to anyone who seeks it. Either here, or from the City. Open government is the people’s government.