Baldwin finance director Karen Degges tried to keep city budget documents secret last week and refused to give our reporter at the Banks County News a copy of the documents. She later sent an email to the city council mulling over ways to keep the city’s budget process secret (now she claims that email was “attorney-client” privilege.)
For the record, here is the full copy of Degges email in which she makes it very clear she doesn’t want the public to know about city spending plans:
Email dated: Monday, June 13, 2011 11:38 A
Good morning everyone,
Saturday’s meeting was one more challenging that I had hoped it would be, with the unexpected attendance by the media (after they said they would not be there at last Thursday’s work session). Clearly there is a huge amount of media interest in the activities of Baldwin, on an extremely detailed level that I have not seen with the other cities I’ve worked for. Unfortunately, the handouts I had prepared for you folks included detailed information about employee salaries, as I thought we were going to be in the position where we could have much more frank discussion about the budgets submitted by the department heads. I had hoped we would leave that meeting with a clear outline of what needed to be cut, or some clear direction from the council as to what staff should do to get the budget in presentation form. We could not get to that goal with the added distraction of having the press literally sitting right there on top of us looking at the notes being taken by the City Clerk and Council members, asking questions, and providing their input as to what we should be budgeting for. I am all for transparency in government, but not when it’s to the point where work is being impeded and the line between who is staff and who is media is being blurred. It took us four hours to get through the budget summary, which had no detailed information at all.
It is going to be very difficult to have another public meeting, which is scheduled for this Thursday at 5:30 at City Hall, and go into the level of detail that will be needed to examine potential budget cuts and/or tax increases to fund what has been requested. Sharon and I had some disagreement first thing Saturday when she asked for a complete set of handouts, which were draft working documents (and labeled so) for our internal use. Initially I refused to provide her with anything, but then she said she was going to ask the Mayor for a set of documents. Then I relented and gave her Robert’s copy of the 3 page departmental summary, and she advised she would be writing up any number we discussed in our meeting. That forced me to hang onto the other handouts. It will be inflammatory enough in the paper to have her print (as I am expecting) that staff has asked for an additional $150,000 in funding, which will require a 2.5 tax mil increase.
Normally all of this behind the scenes discussion of budget details, salaries and proposed budget cuts would be handled by staff (under the City Manager’s direction) prior to presenting the budget to the elected officials. The use of a budget committee of 3 elected officials was discussed but not implemented on Saturday. Since everyone indicated they want to be involved in the budget process (and it is your right to be as elected officials), I think some serious thought needs to be given as to whether or not we want to continue doing this level of detailed discussion and possible disagreement (about what and where to cut) in full view of the press. My primary concern is preserving some level of privacy for our employees, who do not want their pay detailed on the front page of the newspaper for all of their neighbors to see.
I will be putting together some numbers this afternoon on a few different scenarios for possible cost savings, and I would much prefer to meet with three of you Thursday morning, and the second three Thursday afternoon, and it be done as two staff meetings, than be forced to provide the press an abundance of sensitive information, including employee salaries, in a public meeting. Not to mention how much longer it will take to get through all this information in that type of meeting structure. If we proceed with the original plan, the hand-outs used will (I feel sure) be challenged again, and be again requested by the media. Even if those aren’t distributed, everything we say will be public record.
I do not want to take away from or diminish anyone’s participation, but to do this type of detailed budget work in front of the press is not going to be easy or pleasant. Please think this over and let me know if you still want to have the Special Called Meeting on Thursday, or handle this as two separate staff meetings. No matter what is decided, I will try to adjust the content of any handouts accordingly, and at least be more prepared for full publication of any documents.
If any of you have any questions about the material I gave you to take home, please give me a call or stop by and I will be happy to assist you.