What is this thing called “Transparency”?

“If You Are Paying Attention . . . It Should Be Transparent” . . .NOT!

City_of_GWS_LogoI have been underwhelmed by comments on my latest Glenwood Post Independent column, and I am not surprised.  The city budget can be a dry subject to most and I did little to bring it to life. However,  I did receive two comments from Mayor Leo McKinney involving three items I mentioned; transparency, goals and creative thinking.  So, while I am no authority,  let me explain my view.Tweet

The first of Mayor McKinney’s comments, read “the process is transparent for anyone who wishes to pay attention & goals are laid out in the manager’s budget message.”

So What Is Transparency . . . Really?

I will address the transparency issue  in this post since it is the largest and ties into the other two.  In a subsequent post I will talk about goals and creativity. 

In his book, “Transparent Government: What it Means and How You Can Make it Happen”, Donald Gordon defines transparency as:

“The principle by which those affected by administrative decisions and legislation are made aware of the basic facts and figures as well as the mechanisms and processes of their government. This information must be presented in a way that is accessible, comprehensible and enticing, thus motivating citizens to engage in the dialogue necessary to improve the efficiencies of government and mitigate corruption.  It is the duty of our elected representatives and of civil servants to act in such ways as to enable this transparency.”

Accessible

While this is kind of a mouthful it contains key elements that are missing in the budget process – as well as other areas – of the City of Glenwood Springs, and frankly from most governmental entities.

The basic facts and figures are present in the 100-plus pages of the City of Glenwood budget. However, the mechanisms and processes as to how those facts and figures were determined are not.to be found anywhere.  Once again, this is NOT an indictment of the city’s finance department who is responsible for preparing the draft budget, but in the policies that govern the process of determining the over-all budget as well as the final recommendations that council receives on each line item of the budget.

Micromanagement?  Maybe . . .

Some may assert that is micromanagement.  That may be.  Sometimes micromanagement is good and even necessary at times. As a taxpayer, our elected representatives and we, the citizens of Glenwood, have the right to know the basis for those decisions.  Not to pick on specific departments, but for example, what has been the policy, thought process and justification for 26 full and part time employees and an operating budget of  $3.29 million in the Parks and Recreation department compared with 31 full and part time employees and an operating budget of $3.34 million for the Police department?  What is the data to support those decisions and on what basis were they made?

Three Hurdles to TransparencyPolicy, Technology, Culture

Gary Bass, founder and executive director of OMB Watch, which is now the Center for Effective Government and Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government note that there are three hurdles to transparency; policy, technology and culture.

Policy & Technology

Regarding policy & technology, Bass and Moulton state,  “Current laws and policies on public access are inadequate for today’s 24-hour-per-day, seven-days-per-week Internet-enabled world.” 

If this is the case, why would it appear the city is not fully committed to bringing their information systems into the 21st Century.  Currently the Information System Director is a .5 FTE – which means that he works in IS about 20 hours a week.  The city has committed to hiring another  Assistant Computer Tech., which brings the number of personnel in this department to 2.5.  Compare this to Durango with a staffing level in their Information Systems of 10 for 2015.  Granted, the population of Durango is about twice that of Glenwood, but it would seem that if the city was committed to upgrading their systems, the number of personnel and capital expenditures budgeted would be higher. Again, it would be wonderful to have access to the process and reasoning behind these budget decision. I attended the budget work session last Monday and I still don’t know.

In his book, Mr. Gordon maintains that information should be released in a timely and efficient manner and “we need to require government agencies to convert that information in to a useable format that prices a level of comprehensibility that does not require a law degree to decipher.”

Culture

The budget process speaks to the culture within City Hall. There are, of course exceptions.  Bass and Moulton maintain that those in civil service (i.e. those who are employed in any government agency except the military) do not get rewarded for improving public access and, furthermore, the way governmental agencies operate discourages openness.

To illustrate, I will use an example I am very familiar with – that of information surrounding items coming before the Planning and Zoning Commission.Wizard_of_Oz_1939_Insert_Poster It was not until approximately 2010, after my repeated requests as Chair of that commission, that the agendas and minutes of the P&Z were made available on the city’s website.  As it is now, there is a significant delay in posting the minutes – either in draft or accepted form, which I am told is due to workload issues as well as issues with the website.  Furthermore, the online availability only goes back one calendar year.  Why is that?Additionally, if a citizen would like to review an application before the public hearing, they must go to the Community Development office and request a copy, which is normally provided in paper form.  This information should be readily accessible to the public, via the internet.

Please know that I am not asserting that Community Development, or any one department  is attempting to discourage citizens from obtaining information. It is simply the way it has always been done.  In my opinion, this must change.

Wizard of Oz Wisdom

I understand that with the recession the city has been keeping a tight rein on expenses – and that is as it should be.  However, that does not preclude citizens from asking tough questions and being involved in that process.   It is no longer ok for someone to infer  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” – as the Wizard told Dorothy and her pals.  Citizens need the information, and it needs to be understandable and timely.  From this will come authentic citizen engagement and better decisions.

So, I must respectfully disagree with Mayor McKinney’s stance that, “the process is transparent for anyone who wishes to pay attention . . .”  I pay attention and the process is not transparent to me. As citizens and taxpayers, it is time for some changes.

What do you think transparency is?  Do our local governments have it? What works well and what doesn’t?

Bridge Vote? Based on what?

It is great fun to read all the letters to the editor in the Glenwood Post Independent. Kudos to Editor Randy Essex and Publisher Michael Bennett or providing space to allow people to have their say!

Two recent letters require some response – if not in the paper, then on this blog.

Bridge Vote

Grand Avenue Bridge April 5, 2013

Grand Avenue Bridge April 5, 2013

The idea is once again circulating that the citizens  should be allowed to vote on whether the Grand Avenue Bridge should be replaced. My question to them is: Based on what?  What law or code allows citizens of a municipality to vote on any aspect of the highway right-of-way through their town?  I have not heard of one, but if there is, I would really like to know.

I would also like to know who gets to vote. Citizens of Glenwood, Garfield County? How about Pitkin or Eagle County?

You could possibly delay the bridge, but, my guess is that if the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the State say that the bridge for which they are responsible for should be replaced, it will be replaced. The question then becomes, what will it look like?  CDOT has been trying to work out a context sensitive solution. Yes, that context sensitive solution is turning out to be significantly more costly than planned. But ultimately, it is still the FHWA and the State’s call.

As far as voting on a bypass . . . I really do get the frustration with the inability to get off dead center, make a decision and move forward. The letter from the Gianinetti’s and Mr. Moffatt assert that, “We believe that the time has come to put the question of a bypass to a vote of all the people who live here.” However, there is nothing specific on the table on which to vote.

The group also states “Valleywide (sic) transportation routes should be discussed and decided upon by regional consensus. The routing of a state highway through or around any municipality should never be determined uniquely by that municipality.”  I would agree that transportation is a regional issue and that more effort must be made to work for regional solutions.  However, the regions and municipalities that will see the greatest impact, whether economic or environmental must have the greatest say in the decision. And as far as consensus, if you can find a location and a design on which you can get consensus within the region, let alone Glenwood Springs, I would love to see it!

What would help are other connections that would allow people to get to work and truck traffic to get to upper valley destinations, particularly when there is a closure in either Glenwood Canyon or South Canyon. I first heard this proposal from City Council member Michael Gamba and it is, in my opinion, a sound one.  These connections do not need to be high-speed highways, but paved, maintained roads that could be used year-round. One option is Cottonwood Pass. Yes, it would require quite a bit of work, but it is likely it could be done for less than a Glenwood Canyon type roadway through Glenwood Springs.

It is time to try to think beyond what is possible within the confines of our narrow valley.

Wowed by BRT!

BRT 1

The other letter was from Teonna Villasenor. I could not agree more that public transit has the potential to make everyone’s life much easier. Although not a regular rider, I had the opportunity to take RFTA’s BRT to and from Aspen for three days last week. All I can say is wow!

The bus was on-time, comfortable and best of all I could relax as we navigated rain, fog and darkness. I may never drive to Aspen again!  I am totally sold on taking RFTA when possible.  The price, while not cheap, was much less than it would have taken me to drive and park in Aspen.  The drivers were courteous and helpful. Total time, including stops: one hour. Cost of sitting back, working on my laptop, sipping my coffee and watching all the other drivers on the road . . . priceless.  Dan Blankenship and his crew have done a bang-up job with the new BRT service!

All the municipalities, counties and large employers should be putting their heads together with RFTA and Glenwood Springs’ Ride Glenwood to make riding the bus the choice for getting to and from work starting now unless you are already within walking or biking distance.

Employers could start by providing discounted bus passes and flexible work hours or work-from-home options. Making a seamless integration between RFTA and Ride Glenwood would also help. RFTA and Ride Glenwood need one ticket/pass that could be used for both and routes and connections for Ride Glenwood that coordinate with the BRT schedule but not duplicate would help. Geoff Guthrie, the Transportation Manager for the City of Glenwood is working hard to make transportation within Glenwood work well, not only for public transportation but for all modes of transportation.

I would also urge the City of Glenwood and RFTA to work together to put a BRT station and large park-and-ride in West Glenwood. Parking is limited at the 27th Street Station and we need to encourage less traffic through Glenwood. A BRT station in West Glenwood could significantly alleviate travel through Glenwood.

While it looks like the bridge construction is a little ways off, changing the paradigm now rather than waiting for crisis mode would seem to be the best option.