Government watchdog John Marshall Lee offered some pragmatic advice to the City Council last week–marinate in the City Charter. His presentation to the city’s budget and legislative body follows:
About 25 hours ago most of you stood before a gathering of this community, placed your hand on a holy book and said I Do and/or I Will when the Oath of Office was read. Including: “Solemnly swear you will faithfully and impartially execute duties of said office according to the laws to the best of your skill, wisdom, judgment and ability.” To those of you who are new to this body or who approach it with a fresh mind and solid expectations for the role this legislative body must play for the people of Bridgeport, I will encourage you to read and review our City Charter often until it becomes second nature. The Charter is currently and regularly violated in one or more ways and that has been the case after several of the recent Councils have been sworn in.
I am a co-founder and member of Budget Oversight Bridgeport, otherwise called BOB. We focus on monthly financial reports that should reach you by the fourth Friday of a following month per the Charter. But they are not available to you by that date. Sometimes they take more than two months. And the majority of the Council does not currently receive this report online. Why not? This is not OPEN governance. If Mayor Finch can twitter, you ought to be able to take advantage of technology to better govern. The June fiscal year closing report has not been provided in over 20 years until the last two years. But the June report cover indicates it is only a DRAFT, not ready for prime time, I guess. Why not? Will you be looking for a Final report for last June 2013? Please share that request with the City Finance director. That would be more ACCOUNTABLE governance than we suffer today.
Around financial issues, you certainly have power to request information per the Charter. Use that power well. Make the information available and TRANSPARENT. You know your Budget & Appropriations Committee will hold extended sessions in April each year as they consider what the Mayor provides to you. But is that the only time you intend to provide comment on budget matters? The last Board allowed over $4 Million of vacant salaried positions to be approved annually. BOB called them “ghost positions” that would hide where the money would be spent. In September 2012 when the administration removed those positions from the budget, where was the discussion or comment from B&A or the rest of the Council? Where was that money spent? If there is no FINAL JUNE MONTHLY FINANCIAL REPORT, you just can’t tell. Is that the level of budget review and oversight that taxpayers want you to practice?
Where was money spent? Can you answer that question of a constituent when your reports are late, when they do not show variances in detail or when you do not practice “oversight?” Balancing a budget takes work and regular vigilance even though Bridgeport does not have a specific “financial review body.” It’s your job. Please attend to it. And that goes for the Capital Budget the Charter treats separately than the Operating Budget. Look it up.
Your other duty is to pass City rules and regulations that are called Ordinances. You might first read them so as to understand what was passed previously. You may learn that some are out of date or out of tune with the times and require change. Is that something the Ordinance Committee might reasonably take up as a regular assignment? Start with the Purchasing Ordinance that directs you to expect an annual purchasing report and an audit of purchasing every three years. Neither of these duties is happening! Why not? Would the Stratford “gravel gate” fiasco have happened if full reports were provided to Council members well before the administration asks for approval? I don’t think so.
Consider exactly what the Council Committee saw in terms of paperwork. It was very light in terms of a project that would spend $40 Million of Federal money as well as State and local funds. Make believe these are your dollars. They really are. Get good value for your public and be able to explain it to anyone who asks. These are your income taxes and property taxes and those of the folks who voted for you cycling through different pathways. Does it make sense to you? If not, vote no, until you get the facts that convince you and that you can point to when questioned by your constituents. That is a path to more OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE and TRANSPARENT governance. It starts with you honoring the oath you took yesterday. Time will tell.