Can government be trusted?

A city council member recently complained that others didn’t trust him regarding a $4 million bond issue for a new housing complex. He probably was right — both about the lack of trust and about the bonds being a good deal. Trust seems to be in extremely short supply these days, especially when it comes to city government. Yet the city seems to do everything in its power to undermine whatever trust exists, especially regarding the bonds.

Ordinance 1357, amending the city’s authorization of bonds for the project, is a case in point. As we noted last week, when a summary of the ordinance was published as required by law, we were surprised that the summary showed up as being signed by the city attorney even though she had been on vacation and unavailable to answer council members’ questions about it.

After publication, we were told the attorney had been reached by telephone and certified the summary as sufficient. She reportedly certified it on the very same day that she once again was announced as vacationing and unavailable to attend another council meeting regarding the bond issue.

Not a big deal, perhaps, but we didn’t want to abdicate our responsibility as a public watchdog without checking further. Curious whether the notice was, as the attorney reportedly had certified, a legally sufficient summary of the full document, we looked for the full ordinance where last week’s summary promised it would be: on the city’s website.

It never showed up.

Was this a technical or clerical lapse — an accidental oversight of some sort? Or was there some other reason why the city didn’t want voters and taxpayers to see the actual ordinance?

This week, the city is employing the same relatively recent legal loophole to publish only summaries rather than the full texts of two more ordinances. We’ve already checked: The full texts do, in fact, show up on the city’s website, though you have to click around a bit to find them.

It’s bad enough that the city has such little respect for voters and taxpayers that it chooses to take advantage of a loophole and publish only summaries, expecting concerned members of the public to drive to city hall or surf the web to find out what’s really in ordinances.

As proved by the bond issue ordinances, the loophole offers absolutely no protection should the city fail to do as promised and post full details online. By the time you read this, of course, the city probably will have corrected the error and posted the ordinance it failed to post when it said it would.

That’s another problem with Internet posting of laws: A few keystrokes here or there and whatever was or wasn’t posted can be changed, with no way to certify whether what was or wasn’t there yesterday is the same as what will be there tomorrow. With ordinances printed in the paper, an absolute, incontrovertible record exists; online, there’s no way to prove anything.

We honestly don’t suspect that the city did anything sinister regarding the bond ordinance, just as we don’t suspect there’s anything sinister behind the editing of government-supported council videos, which some have complained have been manipulated to remove certain embarrassments before being aired on local cable TV.

We do believe that laws requiring publication of the full text of all ordinances — just like laws that require city councils to meet in public rather than behind closed doors — were an important democratic safeguard that helped engender the sort of trust that now is almost completely lacking.

We hate to have to bring this up, but the more any government tries to control the flow of information about what it does — by meeting behind closed doors, publishing only summaries, or allowing former officials to use government-purchased equipment to create videos that leave out embarrassing portions of meetings — the less the public trusts.

Overturning the loophole, avoiding closed-door sessions, and insisting on unedited cable TV coverage are among the positive ways that trust can be restored.

— Eric Meyer

 

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