Crashing a closed-door city finance meeting

The City Council plans to crash a city finance meeting they weren’t invited to. And they’re bringing the public with them.

“People are really upset about how money is being spent, and there’s a general feeling that the city is mismanaging taxpayer dollars,” said Council Chairman Bill Knobloch, who invited his colleagues to a meeting on Monday intended as a closed-door discussion between the city administration and representatives from the state auditor’s office, who will present a draft of the city’s 2007 audit.

Knobloch and at least three other council members, who were not invited by the administration, plan to attend.

Having four of the city’s seven council members present constitutes a quorum, making the proceedings a public record and open to public attendance.

“Why wouldn’t we want this to be a public meeting?” said Councilwoman Kim Brackett, who plans to attend. “It’s about taxpayer money, after all.”

City Hall watcher Bob Fortner applauded the council’s move to open the meeting.

“Anybody leaning away from public meetings should be seriously questioned,” he said.

But making the meeting public will transform it from a two-way discussion into a one-sided presentation by the auditor’s office, a state agency that promotes fiscal responsibility, open government and conducts annual reviews of local government spending.

According to City Administrator Mark Dombroski, auditor staff cannot answer questions in public meetings about draft audits. The meeting, if made public, would be limited to a presentation of the audit’s preliminary findings.

“We wanted to use the meeting for internal personnel and some members of the council, but not a quorum,” Dombroski said.

Knobloch and Councilman Chris Snow, the chair of the council’s finance committee, were informed of the meeting, but the other five members were not, Dombroski said.

“It was meant as an informal chit-chat where we could get our questions answered,” he said.

It was also meant as an opportunity for the city to express disagreement with the audit’s preliminary findings, and to have issues clarified before the final report is released later this month.

The auditor’s office and the city had planned a public meeting on the final audit on Dec. 17.

The council’s attendance on Monday would effectively establish two public meetings – one on the draft audit and one on the final audit.

The city’s annual meetings on draft audits excluded council members until Knobloch attend the 2003 meeting. The council was given notice of the meetings starting in 2004, although few attended. Running counter to the four-year trend, the full council was not given notice this year, raising suspicions that the administration would prefer to keep the council and the public out of the loop.

“I am told that we are not supposed to know this…seriously!” wrote Fortner in a recent e-mail to fellow members of the Bainbridge Resource Group, a local government watchdog organization.

Dombroski stressed that he gave limited notice to keep the meeting small and informal, and to not preclude a question and answer session with state auditors.

Fortner doubts Dombroski’s explanation.

“I don’t buy that,” Fortner said on Thursday. “I think they don’t want negative information to get out.”
Fortner suspects that the city’s audit will paint a dire picture of city finances.

“There’s a lot of concern about the way the city operates and that it’s teetering on the brink of bankruptcy,” he said.

While revenues have declined, Finance Director Elray Konkel said the city is on stable financial footing.
“People should be very critical about how we spend their money,” he said. “But we are meeting our financial obligations and I don’t see any drastic changes ahead.”

Dombroski said the city already knows the worst of its forthcoming audit.

“We have not seen the draft report, but we do know the results,” he said. “There was one finding, but it’s already been reversed.”

The auditor’s office took issue with the city administration’s transfer of about $530,000 from the general fund to the Storm and Surface Water Management fund to fill a revenue gap. According to the auditor’s office, such a transfer may only proceed with council approval.

“I took the position that I had the authority to do that, but the auditor disagreed,” said Konkel, who authorized the transfer without council approval.

Once notified of the error, the city moved the money back to the general fund and relisted the 2007 SSWM fund with a negative balance. The city plans to refill the fund with future revenues.

The fund transfer issue bolstered Fortner’s opinion that the city is trying to limit information about its budget woes.

“They didn’t want to have a discussion in public or with the council that they have a cash flow problem,” he said.

Despite the limitations the council’s presence will place on the meeting, Brackett believes the public’s interest is best served when City Hall’s doors are wide open.

“It’s our duty as elected officials to ensure that government is open, accountable and transparent,” she said. “I think it’ll be a great meeting, and will educate the public about how the (audit) process works. I’ll be there. I hope the whole council attends.”

MEETING TIME: Monday’s meeting on the city’s preliminary draft audit is set for 11 a.m. at City Hall. Whether the meeting will be open to the public is dependant on the number of city council members present.

One thought on “Crashing a closed-door city finance meeting

  1. The door has been opened. The meeting is open to the public. Let’s see how much Washington Auditor trims his comments to protect the tender sensitivities of the unwashed masses. This could be interesting.

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED the Bainbridge Island City
    Council has been extended an invitation to attend the State Auditor’s Exit
    Audit Conference Monday December 8, 2008 from 11:00 AM to
    The conference will be held in the Council Chambers, 1st Floor,
    280 Madison Avenue N. Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110.
    In anticipation that a quorum of Councilmembers may be present, the
    conference is being noticed as an open public meeting.

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