The events of the last month surrounding the outsourcing of the city’s water department vividly illustrate Sunshine Law violations in Monroe City.
No one enters local government in small cities and counties to get rich. We believe that people of goodwill enter public service because they want to make a difference in the community.
Serving as an alderman, councilman or commissioner on any level is not glamorous and is time-consuming.
Against that backdrop, we offer an observation that no matter the good intent, local governments sometimes go astray.
Such is the case with the Monroe City Board of Aldermen, where the Sunshine Law is being trampled. The events of the last month surrounding the outsourcing of the city’s water department vividly illustrate the issue.
As reported by Hazel Bledsoe Smith, the city in May started the process of hiring an outside contractor to run the water utility on the stated reason that Monroe City cannot find certified operators for the water plant.
The first the public heard of this plan was when Smith reported on a 3 ½-hour executive session conducted on June 6 to actually negotiate a contract with Omaha-based PeopleService Inc. to operate the city’s water plant, a move that will eliminate up to seven city jobs.. Then, two days later, following another executive session, the Board of Aldermen voted in open session to proceed with a contract with the company.
On June 21, aldermen awarded the fast-track no-bid contract to PeopleService for $53,000 a month – a five-year $3.18 million contract. This despite public protests.
The reason given to Smith for such a fast-tracked, secretive process was an urgent need because of a lack of qualified personnel. No time for public notice. No time to solicit proposals. No time for public discussions.
Taxpayers deserve that their business be conducted in the light. That’s the purpose of the Sunshine Law. Monroe City is not conducting business in the open. In this case, here is what we believe should have happened in the spirit of open government:
• The public should have been informed in an open meeting of the need to perhaps outsource this vital city service.
• The magnitude of the dollars involved demands a formal request for a proposal.
• The contract should have been negotiated by city staff and presented to the board. There was no good reason for the entire board to conduct a secret meeting to negotiate a contract.
• The board should have discussed the details of the contract in an open session.
• Finally, state law requires that Fourth Class cities conduct three readings of an ordinance. The first reading is made, and then there should be discussion. The intent is to allow a public vetting of the proposed actions. Prudent public bodies then conduct the final two steps at a future meeting. However, the Monroe City Board of Aldermen approved this contract with all three readings in one night, giving the public no opportunity to review the agreement.
And, this lack of public government Is not an isolated event. Recent minutes from executive sessions show mundane city business being discussed in secret. None of these issues should have been discussed in secret:
• On May 3, City Administrator Jackie Panghorn talked to the board about seeking applications for an administrative position in city hall. The board voted to allow the position. Clearly, not a personnel issue that should be discussed behind closed doors. In that same meeting, the board discussed a variance request and voted to grant a 30-cents an hour pay increase to an employee.
• On May 17, the board in secret session discussed issues with City Attorney John Wilcox’s residency and whether it needed to be resolved with an ordinance.
• On June 6, in addition to negotiating the PeopleServe contract, aldermen discussed why Wilcox does not present detailed bills to the city.
• And the June 8 meeting to discuss the PeopleServe should have been public. Instead, there was agreement among aldermen not to discuss anything about the contract before the next Monday.
There is a systemic issue for the Monroe City Board of Aldermen when its members are discussing routine taxpayer business in secret executive sessions. The Sunshine Law gives a narrow definition of the issues that can warrant an executive session, although the law does not mandate executive sessions. Instead, Monroe City seems to be looking for a reason to conduct public business behind closed doors. At this point, it is up to the voters of Monroe City to speak up if the status quo is to be changed.