There’s a reason I remember, even in my 9th decade, the names of the government budget directors I covered as a reporter.
Charlie Benton was Baltimore’s finance director when Nancy Pelosi’s brother was mayor.
Lennox Moak was Philadelphia’s finance director during the administration of Mayor Frank Rizzo.
Charles McIntosh was the State of Pennsylvania’s finance director when Dick Thornburgh was governor.
And David Stockman served in that role in Ronald Reagan’s Administration.
Why do I remember them – they all shared one notable characteristic. They knew more than anyone else about the government’s finances, and they had SECRETS they wanted kept out of the public’s hands.
Even knowing this, I was surprised when I was added to Ashland’s Citizens Budget Committee a dozen or so years ago. Hiding the true facts about the city’s finances was the order of the day even in a small town.
– It took me several meetings to get an answer to this basic question – how much are city workers contributing to their retirement plan? Martha Bennett, the city administrator and official budget officer, finally admitted that the answer was zero. I was stunned, but so were other Budget Committee members who had served many years. The workers’ six percent contribution was being paid not by them, but by city taxpayers.
– My repeated requests to know how much city insurance costs rose as a result of more than $1 million in payouts on two wrongful termination cases were repeatedly stonewalled by the Stromberg Administration, which had lost one of the cases in federal court and settled the second.
Alison Chan, Medford’s former finance director who stepped in to help out Ashland this year on a temporary basis, has reinforced my long-held view that the city has not been fully honest with city taxpayers. In farewell remarks to the City Council she pointed out deficiencies in Ashland’s budget procedures during the past administration.
During my time on the Budget Committee, the role of the Budget Committee was continually whittled away. In my first years, the committee heard directly from all department heads. Last year, none were scheduled and only on the insistence of citizen committee members were parks commissioners and the director made available.
The entire process was designed to keep Budget Committee members from asking questions; The meetings were ended while a dozen or so proposed spending cuts remained on the table.
Furthermore, the former city attorney ruled that the Budget Committee went out of business after the city’s budget was adopted. This ran directly counter to the promise made by the city when Council decided to adopt a two-year budget.
The committee will still meet in the off years to conduct in-depth reviews of departmental budgets, the mayor and Council declared. And that happened once.
In the meantime, finance directors have changed with every budget. Formats have changed regularly. But, keeping the facts of city finances hidden has continued.