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Can “Transparency” Go Too Far?

By Lisa Ellison

Audit HighlightsOn December 11, Greenville city council heard an audit report. The auditors declared the town “unmodified” — that is, Greenville’s in good shape. The city finds itself sitting on some cash that’s not really needed for anything. $2.8 million, to be exact.

When left with a bundle of undesignated money like this, city Financial Director Bernita Demery said, “it can be moved to the capital reserve fund for future funding, or one of the things we’ve done is to fund something of immediate need [for] that year.” 

District 1 councilor Kandie Smith tried a different tack: “With the 2.8 million dollars, I would like to make a motion that we rescind the 1-cent tax increase that we imposed on the citizens. We did not have to do that. I would like that repeal to be applied at the beginning of the next fiscal year. I do not want to tax the citizens, and we are looking at a possible bond. I do not think the overtaxing should happen. I think that we’ve moved too quickly in the first place to increase that one cent tax increase.” District 2 councilor Rose Glover seconded the motion.

So, hooray! A break for taxpayers!

But it was not to be.

City Attorney Holec chimed in, “As far as the scope of this agenda item, it’s the audit report and not action on the tax rate. In my opinion, [this motion] would be outside the scope of this agenda item.” But that wasn’t all; there was a second point, “…about the subject of the motion. When you set the tax rate, that’s part of the budget process, and you have your public hearing and make your decision. You would really do this as part of the budget ordinance process.”

Mayor Allen Thomas declared it over. “It’s the city attorney’s opinion that the motion would be out of order,” Thomas said, “and not in context of the agenda. Alright, so we’ll move on.”

And move on they did. District 4 councilor Rick Smiley moved to accept the audit report. At-large councilor Calvin Mercer seconded it. Normally at this point in the proceedings, council would discuss the motion, then vote on it. 

Smith asked if something needed to be done about her seconded motion, the one to rescind the one-cent tax increase, prompting confusion and chaos.

Holec responded, “First, the mayor, as the presiding officer, would make the determination if [the motion] is out of order. If somebody objects, you have the ability to appeal his determination.”

"So it's up to me?"

“So it’s up to me?”

Here the camera pans to a befuddled-looking mayor: “So it’s up to me? Well, a motion’s been made and a motion’s been seconded, so I’ll allow the council to make a decision.”

Holec: So you’re saying the motion is in order?
Thomas: I’ll allow the vote to be had.
Smiley: So the ruling is that this is in order?
Thomas: The ruling is that there can be a discussion; there can be a vote.
Mercer: I’m not clear what the mayor’s ruling is.
Smiley: What is the mayor saying?
Thomas: I’ve accepted the motion and the second to allow there to be a vote.
Mercer: Just for clarity, the mayor is not taking the advice of the city attorney, is that correct?
Thomas: The ruling is that I, as presiding officer, can allow this vote to take place, as indicated by the city attorney, and as the motion has a second, will allow that vote to happen.

(I find the mayor’s refusal to state unequivocally, “The motion is in order” odd, and invite reader speculation on it.)

Next, Smiley moved “to appeal the mayor’s ruling and declare this motion out of order.” The motion was seconded by Mercer and received support from councilors representing Districts 3 and 5, Marion Blackburn and Richard Croskery. The sentiment of the majority of councilors voting to overturn the mayor’s determination agreed with Smiley that there was “no problem with the underlying intent of the motion,” but that “it wasn’t advertised to the public that there would be a discussion on the tax rate.” 

“Transparency,” the window that allows the public to see what elected officials are doing, was the word floating at the top of the discussion among councilors that night.

In a memorandum for heads of executive departments and agencies, President Barack Obama wrote that government should be transparent and participatory. That is, government should “disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use,” and “should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.” These are exactly the things we want from local through federal levels of government.

They are also the things the majority of Greenville’s council (and the city’s attorney) were encouraging.

Do we, and should we, demand the same degree of transparency on the rare occasion that those in power want to take less of our resources than they’d planned to? Or is strict adherence to our rules the best way to maintain open government? What do you think?

If Microsoft Silverlight is compatible with your system, watch the presentation and the discussion. But be warned, it runs about 55 minutes:
Get Microsoft Silverlight
If 55 minutes of that seems too face-melting to contemplate, try just the motion to repeal the tax increase and its discussion. It runs about 30 minutes, beginning at 1:07:
Get Microsoft Silverlight
(And speaking of open, transparent government: When will the city, which finished second nationwide among cities of comparable size in some org’s recent “Top Digital City,” derby — and proud owner of a beautiful and easy-to-use website — stop using the egregiously outdated Silverlight system to get video of city business out to the public?)

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