The Cost of Opacity

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In his closing remarks at tonight’s council meeting, city attorney Apollo Carey obfuscated the requirements of the Sunshine Law and the city charter in defense of an opaque governing tactic which we have reason to believe is costing the city a great deal. In recent council meetings, two bids have been offered up for their approval, for grass cutting, and for updating our zoning ordinances. In both cases, we have serious questions.

In the case of the bids for updating our zoning code, city staff selected the most expensive bid. When Elliot Liebson, the city’s director of planning and development, was asked why they went with the most expensive bid, he basically said that staff was most comfortable with their presentation. There may have been mention of pizazz. Finally, there was Mr. Liebson’s infamous remark that the bid was “a little bit of change.” Council tabled the matter, but it is likely to return in the weeks ahead.

For the bid to cut the grass on derelict properties, the city selected the second highest bidder. As we previously documented, they passed over a bid from Palmer Residential Services, a Ferguson based business which already maintains dozens of single family homes and several large commercial properties, in favor of a company from Arnold which was substantially more expensive. The bid, from Walter Knoll Florist, costs the city $98 per hour for mowing lawns that are over 24″. Considering the low frequency with which we mow vacant properties, that will probably be most of them. Palmer’s bid was $60 per hour. In the case of the grass contract, council approved it without so much as a question. We have placed a Sunshine Request with the city asking for last year’s invoices from Walter Knoll, but they are demanding more than $50 to satisfy the request, and have declined to provide the information under the public interest provision of the Sunshine Law.

Each of these bids will cost city residents tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs. At a minimum, residents are entitled to an explanation of the choice. But the greater concern is the city’s lack of transparency in their decisions. Mr. Carey, in an unusual rebuttal to a citizen comment this evening, flips back and forth between things which are permitted under the Sunshine Law, and things which are required. It is true that the Sunshine Law allows the review of bids to be done in private, with the selection presented as an accomplished fact, as is now the city’s practice. But it does not require it. We believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of this city that decisions be made in the most transparent way possible. While the council does not perform the administrative act of opening and reviewing bids, they are certainly entitled to a public presentation comparing the bids, and an explanation as to why a particular bid was chosen. They should demand this on every resolution, and refuse to pass any resolution where it is lacking. It is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of council to blindly accept staff recommendations and pass resolutions validating them.

Another laughable point by Mr. Carey is the suggestion that a public process for reviewing bids would be subject to corruption. He went so far as to name Steve Stenger and Rod Blagojevich in defense of that suggestion. But of course, it is precisely the opposite. Stenger and Blagojevich both exploited an opaque process, where they were able to rig outcomes and slide them past the elected officials who were supposed to be keeping watch of the public interest. Which is to say, the very practices which made it possible for Stenger and Blagojevich to engage in corruption are also followed in Ferguson. Since the council chose to remove Mr. Blume in a closed session, we can only speculate as to whether such a situation already existed on Church Street.

While we’re on the subject of the Sunshine Law, we would point out a few other items. According to the attorney general, “The Sunshine Law allows a public body to close meetings and records to the public in some limited circumstances, but it almost never requires a public body to do so.” Ferguson has taken the approach of closing every possible meeting, and has left residents in the dark about a great many doings on at city hall. A better attitude toward transparency could keep the city in compliance with the Sunshine Law, while providing residents with better information about what is happening. Again, it is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of council to use the Sunshine Law to conceal as much as possible, instead of the least which is necessary.

This evening, the council voted unanimously to pay somebody $98 an hour to mow the yards of vacant properties in the city. The city attorney informed us that it’s none of our business why they did. At the same time, the city tells us they are broke, and that we must spin off the fire department and accept a huge tax increase so they can spend more. We suggest that, rather than dipping into the pockets of working class residents who can ill afford it, they start satisfying their fiduciary duty to the city. A good place to start that would have been to pay $60 an hour for mowing instead of $98.