Buffalo River 

GREG HARTON: Shhhh! Public doesn't have to know, right?

14 Jan 2019 10:24 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

GREG HARTON: Shhhh! Public doesn't have to know, right?

by Greg Harton | January 13, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.

Here's an idea: In government offices at every level, administrators should make it an assigned duty of a high-ranked employee to interject a single question into every discussion of projects or major policy changes

Which question? "So, shouldn't we be notifying taxpayers and others affected by this and asking for their feedback?"

The most recent example of bureaucratic tone deafness comes from the University of Arkansas, which began cutting down trees for a street project last week. Those trees were near private homes. That anyone would be shocked by a negative reaction in Fayetteville to felling a bunch of trees demonstrates higher education doesn't always equate to common sense.

The UA isn't alone in the practice of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, or even just understanding. Whether it's state or local government, or sometimes public utilities, projects that can go through hundreds of hours of internal discussions get under way without anyone questioning whether the greater public ought to be brought up to speed.

Arkansas' worst-case example is the large-scale hog farm the state licensed to operate near a creek that feeds directly into the Buffalo National River. State agencies ostensibly focused on protecting the environment issued the initial permit for the hog farm without notifying nearby landowners, county residents or their leaders, the Arkansas Department of Health or the National Park Service.

Suggesting that nobody raised the issue of notification is, admittedly, a bit naive. Indeed, it seems possible, if not probable, in a lot of these "Oops, we should have told you" scenarios that a conscious decision to exclude public notification was made, a roll of the dice that increases the likelihood a project will be carried out before any concerned citizens have a chance to get all stirred up.

The Washington County Quorum Court and County Judge Joseph Wood recently created a similar circumstance with Wood's 2019 budget. Despite the Quorum Court's protests to the contrary, its members provided relatively weak oversight of the spending plans developed by full-time elected officials. The 15 members of the Quorum Court are supposed to be the last line of defense to prevent exorbitant spending.

Judge Wood included pay raises well beyond the 3 percent overall raises the Quorum Court favored for county employees. For example, his chief of staff, Carl Gales, saw his pay increase 28 percent, from $71,415 to $91,428. Three employees in Wood's financial management area saw 20 percent increases totalling $12,000, $9,389 and $6,419 a year. Wood's road superintendent realized a 26.4 percent, or $17,420, annual raise. Many others saw double-digit percentage increases. Wood's pay raises for employees totaled $269,797 beyond what would have been covered by the 3 percent raises the Quorum Court favored across the board.

Were they justified? Who knows? The Quorum Court did not question them. Wood's office was content to get them without public scrutiny. Nobody did anything illegal, but nobody can argue the sizable raises were delivered in the full light of day so that the public could understand the reasons Wood felt they were needed.

The admirable approach to public budgeting is fully exposing and explaining big pay increases or projects that will impact the public. If the changes are justified, why shy away from a public explanation? Laying such things out in full view also insulates them from later criticisms.

Public officials can ignore the public as long as the public allows it. We get what we ask for when we re-elect people who prefer to operate secretly when spending public dollars. Bureaucrats can function with impunity until they're called out by higher influences, such as a college board of trustees.

The strongest message to convince public officials they need to operate with transparency is to boot those who operate behind a veil of secrecy to the curb at the next opportunity.

Commentary on 01/13/2019

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