Friday, August 15, 2014
Guest Column: August 14, 2014 Dearborn County Register Publications
Troubling Questions About County Government
In recent years I have had some troubling questions about Dearborn County government.
What do you do when you can’t get information from your local government?
What do you do when you find out that only certain people were invited to bid on a government project?
What happens if costly government projects are broken up into smaller pieces so that the public does not get to vote on it?
Is the judicial branch in charge of the government?
Can County Council stop Commissioners from spending on a project?
When are rules governing majority vote properly changed?
What happens when judges or prosecutors make mistakes?
What if you ask a question at a public meeting about a process or expenditure and get no answer?
Should all public meetings be recorded?
Does an attorney for county boards receive any special training on laws specific to government process?
After covering county meetings for almost 20 years, I know that there are three guiding principles of good government. When things start running amok I can usually trace the problem back to one or more of these being violated.
The first is the Open Door Law or the Sunshine Law. The second is Conflict of Interest. The third is the System of Checks and Balances between the branches of government.
This year I saw evidence of the Dearborn County Redevelopment Commission (DCRC) violating all three principles.
When some government officials and the local paper attempted to contain and correct the DCRC, others tried to cover up and obstruct. The board circled the wagons and protected the violators, rather than opening the door and protecting the citizens of the county. The county commissioners via their attorney proposed a three page form to be filled out in order to access public records.
After the Public Access Counselor ruled against the DCRC, the DCRC attorney suggested that they have everyone who attends their meetings sign in. Was this to protect the board from complaints? One of the DCRC answers to the newspaper’s complaint was that it was over the 30 day time limit to complain about the violations. So if they can prove you were at the meeting and didn’t complain in time, then they are off the hook? Lawyers are great at defensive strategy like that. But it doesn’t change the fact that they violated. Getting the board off on a technicality does not protect the citizens of the county.
The newspaper article regarding the complaint filed by their assistant editor with the Public Access Counselor shows not one or two violations but a clear and persistent pattern of them.
After someone has held a job for a year or two they should know the rules of government, particularly when they are hired as the county administrator. And the same is true for the lawyers serving as advisors to county boards. There should be a refresher course for boards and their attorneys on the Open Door Law. In the meantime there are officials, such as the county auditor, well-versed in these regulations for them to have as a resource.
The final straw while wading through this Open Door obstacle course came at the DCRC’s regular meeting in July when I asked (twice) when exactly did this board decide on the retroactive pay for Terri Randall? I received no answer other than a “belief” from the former Chairman of the Board that he’s sure they must have done it in one of the meetings they didn’t have minutes for- just after they started meeting at the county administration building over a year ago. This belief was not supported by any other member at that July meeting or by any other county commissioner or council minutes or emails.
This brings us to two other issues with my guiding principles. The checks and balances don’t work because the commissioners are sharing their administrator with the DCRC board. Her salary is being paid by both commissioners and DCRC, thus giving the appearance of a conflict of interest. Which board is she serving? Who checks on whom?
I have been told over the years by officials that it is hard to see your own conflicts of interest, because when you are in power, you think you can handle issues and be fair. If any board needs to be watched closely, it is the DCRC. They are in charge of bringing economic development to the county. They spend a large amount of our money including grants to attract business- $4.7 million in incentives for the latest business. They cut the tax revenue to our schools by rerouting it through the TIF (tax incremental financing) districts for these businesses. Good schools are key to getting and keeping jobs. Who will be making up for the shifting tax revenue?
DCRC has more closed door executive sessions than any board in the county. They should be watching out for the good of the citizens. Instead they seem to be more worried about getting around whoever is watching them.
Christine Brauer Mueller of Lawrenceburg Township is a writer for the Dearborn County Public Forum www.dearborncounty.blogspot.com and has attended county meetings since 1995.