When it comes to City Council members, government watchdog John Marshall Lee is like a chihuahua nipping at their heels. A few weeks ago he had addressed members of the city’s budget and legislative body about their city stipends. He had a request and restated it Monday night during the speaking portion of the council session: “Will each of you who are running for Council in November reveal what you received during the 12 months of the Fiscal 2013 year? And will you explain what the funds were spent on towards your representation duties?” Lee’s address to the council follows:
Two weeks ago on the Tuesday following Labor Day I appeared to address the subject of City Council stipends. I provided some information as background and asked some questions of you as individuals who are part of the Council structure. Three Council persons responded to me with partial accounting of their reimbursements. I want to thank them publicly. They know who they are. That means 17 of you did not hear me or felt that my concept of quarterly public accountability for reimbursement of Council related expenses is not worthy of action or response. I am a taxpayer, one of many in the City. My questions and thoughts are not so unique that they bear being ignored. So I will briefly re-state my request. Will each of you who are running for Council in November reveal what you received during the 12 months of the Fiscal 2013 year? And will you explain what the funds were spent on towards your representation duties? The public is interested.
What I also learned since then is that one or more persons were insulted by my comments. No one explained the cause of the insult during my 5 minutes of commentary. However, I apologize to each of you if you took the comments personally, but I am sharing a reality with you … the public at large is unhappy with failure to be accountable with funds, and your stipends are just one small piece of the City half billion dollar annual operating budget. There is a simple remedy and you do not need any other levels of government to enact it. (There are errors in City financial records regarding City Council stipends. They are small errors, but any errors cast doubt about accountability and transparency.) Report your stipend use!
As you know I take time to come to meetings, review documents, connect activity with Charter instructions and stay current with City governance. So let me point out the regular lack of public discussion or dialogue by the Council. Tonight I am participating in a “public speaking” session. You know that this is not attended by many of your members and that some evenings there are not a full complement of speakers. Is that public behavior positive in your mind for Bridgeport? Is it a sign that government is working effectively and efficiently in the City? If you are honest we only need to look back at last Tuesday for the answer when a small number of voters carried the day by electing challengers over incumbents in many cases.
Why did that happen? You have your own thoughts on the matter, but I wonder whether you contemplate any structural changes of regular and systematic formal interaction with the public. If you have been to a Board of Education meeting recently, you will hear members of the public sharing their insight, facts, or opinions with the BOE and public school leadership. Often they get a comment or response that indicates they have been heard. Do you realize that this meeting could function in similar positive fashion? There is no rule against this that I know of, is there? And your subcommittees could function in similar fashion.
Some of your co-chairs allow public comment and others do not. When it comes to Budget and Appropriations public input or questions are unwelcome. Why is that? What public responsibility or interruption of Council duty would place brief public comments, during a meeting and addressing agenda items only, a problem? Please let me know, or your constituents know as you address them and solicit their vote.
You have heard me mention the problems you face in responding to City initiatives and voting when you receive information too little or too late to make a proper vote on behalf of the voters. Yet you continue in the practice, when a public statement to your constituents or to the press, or to your President, might change the way the administration treats you. You know my major emphasis has been on fiscal issues facing the City. And the more I have dug into the information available, the less attractive the City looks to me in terms of their responsibility. And you accept Charter violations, or limitations of information flowing to you, or failure to promote good information about Capital budgets, public bonding and increasing debt including an annual meeting dedicated to soliciting ideas from the public.
Last Tuesday’s primary was a day where members of the majority party came out to vote and to a large extent voted their dissatisfaction with those who were incumbents or who were supported by the administration. That is not news to any of you. But it is never too late to bring governance practices about your own Council body, its duties and responsibilities, up to date. Share your ideas with your constituents. Listen to what they have to say. We must change our institutions and our outlooks to survive. You have a role to be active. Time will tell.