Ashland City Council Is Marginalizing Citizens’ Role on the Citizen Budget Committee – A Must Read
Marginalizing Citizens’ Role on the Citizen Budget Committee
It is clear the City of Ashland is attempting to marginalize the role of citizens on the Citizens Budget Committee. State Budget Law requires citizens, equal in numbers to councilors, be on a Budget Committee to review and approve the budget including any property tax rate changes. State law ORS 294.426(4) and 294.428(3) allow citizens to request any pertinent information. Ashlanders who watched the recent Budget Hearings may have observed strain between the council and some of the citizens on the Committee, and there are reasons for this.
In May, 2015, many of the citizens on the Committee were new to the budget hearing process and, after the 2015-17 budget was approved, wanted to form informal study groups of 2-3 citizens to become more familiar with complex issues in the budget. The City repeatedly and strongly implied citizen members could not meet, due to State public meeting law restrictions. However, during State provided Budget Law training in March, 2017, citizens learned they could indeed have met in study groups as long as they did not meet or deliberate outside of a quorum. City Councilors do this all the time. Clearly the City intended to discourage citizens from learning about our City’s services and operations.
The City scheduled numerous meetings to discuss updates to the quarterly financial statements and issues of concern such as Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs), etc. However, as time went on, it became more obvious the City was not interested in answering questions asked by citizens. For example, a citizen member asked the City to provide information about personnel services expenses, including overtime, several times dating back to the May 2015 budget hearings. During the May 11, 2017 Budget Hearing, the Interim Director of Finance Services implied that it was not “appropriate” for a citizen serving on the Budget Committee to ask such questions. The City finally provided some documents on employee compensation, but only after 2017-19 budget hearing meetings were underway and there was public outcry.
Citizen members asked questions about CIP projects but were told those inquiries were related to policy and not within the purview of the citizens on the Budget Committee. However, during the State training session on Budget Law, it was confirmed that citizens did indeed have the right to inquire about policy issues in general, particularly, when funds are needed to implement or pay for those policies.
Into the second year of the biennium, the City cancelled the remaining scheduled quarterly meetings, claiming there was no need to meet as topics had been covered. They had not, in fact, been fully covered. To encourage the reinstatement of valuable quarterly Budget Committee meetings to discuss quarterly financial statements and other issues, a citizen on the committee made a motion that the City schedule the meetings in the new biennium. The citizen was chastised by the Mayor, who stated the citizen did not have the authority. To date, quarterly budget meetings have not been scheduled to meet in the new biennium.
Clearly, the City Council wants it known that they are the ‘deciders’ and do not want any probing questions or suggestions from citizens serving on the Committee or, for that matter, from Ashlanders, in general. The purpose of the committee under ORS 294.231 (5) states that citizens are “To provide for the control of revenues and expenditures for the promotion of efficiency and economy in the expenditure of public funds.”
Citizens Excluded from the Budget Process
In preparing for the upcoming Budget Hearings, the City deviated from prior years’ process by excluding citizen members, stating that only the Council can make policy decisions. Unlike prior years, citizen members were omitted from discussions about “assumptions,” that are changes to the base budget. Instead, the City bypassed the Citizens’ role and scheduled “special meetings” for city councilors only and closed the public forum segment. Ashlanders in general could not comment. Also, deviating from prior practice, the City approved hiring of additional police officers without input from the citizens on the Committee and without securing funding sources other than mentioning the possibility of adding a flat surcharge to utility billing statements. The end result was a flawed process resulting in additional work for everyone involved. It seems the “spirit” of having citizens participate in the process is not being valued or honored.
The budget document that was released on May 4, 2017 contained numerous numerical errors, was light on detailed information (resulting in more than 150 documents being provided during the Budget Hearings), and noticeably missing from the budget document were the many Performance Measures that provide insight into the performance of Departments’ operations. For example, the Police Department regularly provided information on department performance that included graphs, charts, and 23 Performance Measures such as “Have adequate staffing to safely handle an incident 99% of the time.” The 2017-19 budget document this year contained 3 performance measures for the police Department at a time the Police Chief is requesting hiring five police officers costing the City more than a million dollars in the biennium. During deliberations, the Mayor stated that it is not the duty of the citizens to ask about performance measures. In the end, citizens serving on the Budget committee were shut down and continue to have many unanswered questions.
It is now apparent the City Council wants to push forward its agenda without any resistance from citizens including seasoned citizens on the Budget Committee. For that matter, it seems this City Council does not let budget constraints stop them from their agenda, as they will simply approve hiring employees, suggesting that the cost may be added to utility statements. Former Budget Committee members spoke out against the proposed budget, particularly, that of the unconventional process to hire five police officers without identifying a funding source, thereby placing an additional burden on Ashlanders. Overall, for this budget process, the Mayor and City Council followed a flawed process that has resulted in a flawed budget. As one former councilor stated the budget document is a “disaster.” The four Budget Committee members who sign this article, all voted not to approve the budget.
The Mayor and City Councilors have run for office on the premise of “transparency”. Transparency is a practice, not just a word. It is defined as “an organization or its activities that are open to public scrutiny”. We request the Mayor and City Councilors to open those doors to public scrutiny by scheduling quarterly meetings to freely discuss the budget and financial health of the City, including that of performance measures. Let’s work together to practice transparency. If you feel the same, please write to the city councilors at [email protected] and also include Budget Committee Chair David Runkel at [email protected]
David Runkel, Budget Committee Chair
Garrett Furuichi, Budget Committee Vice Chair
Shaun Moran, Budget Committee
Mary Cody, Budget Committee