The WAY I see it: Transparency, nice platform, painstaking process; can we see our way through it?

OPINION – This election year’s main issue has been about transparency in city government.  Access to city hall and our government is a serious concern. It is an issue that is mentioned by numerous candidates. And rightly so, because the process to becoming informed as a citizen can be more discouraging than inviting. I speak from personal experience:

Example: Voting

Last Thursday I was turned away from voting at the St. George city offices because even with a lengthy voting history, my identification was questioned.

Due to a residential move, I lacked the necessary ID and was ready to follow the provisional voting procedure. And the poll workers were about to let me cast a provisional ballot. But someone across the room stopped them.

The curious part is that a stranger with no identification made a final determination that I was ineligible to vote.

And, we wonder why voter turnout is so low.

Ed. note: Utah Election Code provides:”If the poll worker is not satisfied that the voter has presented valid voter identification, the poll worker shall… issue the voter a provisional ballot … .” The voter then has a prescribed time and process to resolve the issue.

Under this kind of regimen, the father of someone I know would not be allowed to vote where he is registered to vote; he is a man who has served the St. George community in many capacities and is well known as a public servant – among those not blinded by bureaucracy. He is now a resident at an out-of town veteran’s facility while maintaining a home in St. George. Under the rules, he would be shunned liked a Hooters waitress at an Amish picnic.

Example: Request for carousel information

Two years ago, issues surrounding the carousel were raised during the St. George City Council race.

I attempted to gather the facts and began by asking the receptionist at the front desk in city hall who I needed to speak with.  Rather than simply directing me to the proper person, I was given a third-degree inquisition and runaround.

When I bypassed the receptionist and went to the community development office, nobody seemed to know anything about how the carousel was funded even though that is where it was being managed.

Example: Request for budget information

During the City of St. George budget hearings process this year, I requested certain routine budget information in an Excel format.  Even though the information was available, I was told I needed to make a GRAMA request, a formal request for information made under the state’s Government Records Access Management Act which outlines records management responsibilities for all governmental entities.

Yes, the information was available in the form I requested, and for most people it would have only taken a few minutes to produce; but unfortunately, there is a prevailing notion in city hall that every request made of the government must also be made complex.

It was days later when I was finally able to get through to someone in the finance office.  I do confess that she was quite helpful – though the process was cumbersome and difficult.

Example: Request for animal shelter resolution

This brings me to the present.

I had to contact two city council members to get a copy of the resolution regarding improvements at the animal shelter prior to the St. George City Council’s proposed action.

It is possible to go online and get copies of the City Council agenda, but none of the supporting documentation.

Extra work and manpower might be reasons used for information not being produced. I would accept that as a reasonable excuse if it were not for the fact that information is already assembled and made available to the council members via private internet access.

It sure looks like the bureaucratic administration of the city is averse to public access.

I have been told, in sarcasm by one employee, that the city attorney would require the public to complete a GRAMA request to get an employee’s name, if he could.  On occasion it does appear that way.

Solutions

The St. George City website is nice and there are a lot of “radio buttons” to push, but all of the stations seem to have static.

The federal, state, and increasingly local governments as well, are relying more and more upon bureaucracies to set public policy. Unfortunately, the role of bureaucracy is to regulate and restrict. What is really needed is for elected officials to require more of bureaucrats.

Transparency means that these elected officials ought to demand that the bureaucrats justify their impositions on the public rather than subjecting the public to comply with the designs of cautious bureaucrats.

“The duty of elected officials is not to explain Washington to the people; it is to represent the people in Washington,” former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich told me. The same may be said for local officials.

An open and transparent government means the public has access.

Transparency means bureaucrats should be informed to be easily transparent about every financial transaction.

It means every citizen has ready access to all public business, except personnel matters and proprietary business information of private parties.

Transparency means that every citizen is encouraged to vote.

It means that the government records access rules are not used as a weapon to exclude the public, but rather as a means of assuring nothing is kept from the public.

And, transparency means that websites, reception booths, and public resources are really available to all citizens.

That is the Way I see it.

 

William Way is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News. Additional writings may be found at wwwjr.wordpress.com.

Email: wwwjr@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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5 Comments

  • FairVoter August 17, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Fair municipal elections would diversify the City Council’s membership.

    Opponents of transparency prefer to the keep the City Council homogeneous.

  • Matthew Sevald August 17, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    How disgusting that you were turned away at the ballot. You have my sincere condolences from one citizen to another even though we would most likely vote differently. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged. Thanks to Joyce for showing us the law that you should have been allowed to vote provisionally. It could be argued that such a “mistake’ is the price we pay for volunteers in our free society – an error on the side of protecting the system; but given the overwhelming evidence of voter fraud in the last presidential election I am inclined to believe that this sort of thing has darker origins and will become all the more prevalent unless we hold ourselves to higher vigilance.
    .
    As for GRAMA requests, they can serve a legitimate purpose. If someone requests police records for an incident they have to fill out some forms with their information, their relationship to the incident, and the reason they want the information. The GR serves as a way of filtering out those who don’t have a “need to know” such as the suspect of domestic violence or other crime that may retaliate against the victim or other reporting party. In such cases, information is redacted to protect persons.
    .
    At other times, GR help delay sensitive information getting out to busy body citizens who just want to know the juicy details for gossip and news organizations that are often unscrupulous with what they print, looking to sensationalize the latest tragedy in the name of the almighty dollar or “the right of the public” without considering the impact it will have on further harming those involved or aiding future crimes. I am of the opinion that in those sorts of circumstances, the bureaucracy helps the public good. I don’t believe that incidents between persons are “public record” simply because a public agency intervened.
    .
    That said, I believe the GR is used as a weapon at times and the hearsay comment of the Attorney wanting one to reveal a name of a city employee is most likely much, much less tongue-in-cheek than you believe. It is said that knowledge is power and that control of the flow of information is a weapon. There are many who enjoy the power of holding on to information, even if it isn’t altogether important info. Letting what you want out at the rate you want to those you want shapes incidents and the public image of projects or cases. By forcing people to go through the red tape for (non-)legitimate public information, time is afforded to the public agency to get their ducks in a row and possibly begin damage control under the guise of “finding” the records – which in this day and age are quite often computerized and simple to find. It very much can be a 5 minute process if they wanted it to be. Add on to it the “fee” (tax) that is often charged to “find” the records and you have another reason to implement the GR – good old fashioned revenue generation.
    .
    Transparency is a vogue word for most, at the moment. It is nothing but lip service to appease the population while those in positions of power conduct business as normal. Sadly, it is the human condition worldwide and not isolated to St. George or Washington. We’d be better served to be fully open when it comes to our magistracies’ finances, though the lawyers would always mince the meaning of subtle nuances in words to their advantage. Perhaps that’s why (as I’ve heard told) there’s a Spanish or African (unknown country) curse which states, “May you fall into the hands of lawyers”.

    • William Way August 17, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      Matthew:

      I believe you would find that we agree more often than disagree. The voting scenario is in fact partially of my own making for not correcting my registration when I relocated …. As one with long-term experiences working in local government I ought to have corrected that a year ago. Yet, I believe you saw the point that I was making. The situation created disincentive, even in the face of much publicity about the need to encourage greater voter turnout.

      GRAMA regulations do offer some merit to public access. However, state statutes were created with the intent to assure public access when local (and in some cases state agencies) were arbitrary about withholding information from the media and the public. GRAMA regulations were intended to force government to release information. Attorneys have discovered how to manipulate those same regulations to protect entities against public discovery. To me that is a far greater issue about how public business will be conducted.

      As I believe I noted personnel and private proprietary business information is legitimately kept private. But, even some proprietary information should be available to the public, once the government has entered a contract with them (They should be aware of that going into a relationship with the government).

      Again, being libertarian in nature I say that government which governs least governs best, but I prefer that government which “governs” not at all.

      Ed. ellipsis.

  • Tyler August 17, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Hence freedom is a delusion.

  • Shakai August 17, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Great piece I must say, very eye opening. Even with all the controversy surrounding the latest actions by the mayor and city council, a very disappointing 5,000 out of 31,000 registered voters in the city voted during last week’s Primary Elections. It’s no wonder we can’t get a “fresh over” at city hall. It goes to show the younger generations under 40 clearly don’t give a *** and we are the ones who will pay in the future, not these repeat older generations who vote faithfully as they will soon die off. This is yet another reflection of our disconnected, distracted society…
    Ed. ellipsis ***

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