Most people think the little city of Klamath Falls with its 18.7 square miles of jurisdiction and a total population of 21,000 (and whopping $71 million in revenue) is easily accessed and operates with transparency because it is so small (except for the budget). Those who believe that are wrong. You don’t need to dig deep to discover this.
Corruption by Ommission
A city serves by the will and tax base of the citizens, which makes the citizens owners in a way. As owners, any citizen should have open access to any information their city possesses. Higher levels of govermnent have access to all the information about you: they can monitor your phone conversations, email, and online purchases any time they want. The city government keeps a record on you and the staff can review that information at will.
We’re coming up on the 20th aniversary of the Internet opening up extremely cheap methods for assisting citizen access to government information. With all forms of information stored as data on computers, faciliating access should be a zero cost activity for staff already being paid to move that data around. Many cities provide direct access. At a minimum, they make a point of supporting the public interface by posting all their committee memberships, meetings, and minutes on their websites. Not Klamath Falls.
Over a decade ago, the City began operating a website and several years ago paid a company to restructure it and make it easier to update. They did manage to post the static core documents like the charter and the city code.
Curiously absent from the City of Klamath Fall’s website are the lists of members of the committees the administration uses to scapegoat responsibility for decisions they make. There are few agendas, no schedule updates, no minutes, no membership histories, and no recommendation summaries.
- Committee memberships
- Meeting schedules
- Committee minutes
- Term and appointment histories
- Sources of Council actions
The City posts some information for the City Council, but the way the meetings are recorded is closely controlled and sometimes edited in ways you’d expect to see in Communist China. Any kid can post a crappy video on Youtube, but our City doesn’t post meeting recordings or the video from Council meetings. (update April 2014…since this article came out, the city has added more information including select meeting video).
We have direct evidence of the administration doing this. In one instance, the City selectively used verbatim statements from staff, but withheld citizen testimony from the minutes. They swept away the truth of corruption and hid it with false statements by City officials.
This is amazing. Look at the public information request form. There is a question on that form that should not exist. It reads,
“Purpose of Request: Because the identity and motive of the person seeking disclosure of a particular public record may be relevant in determining whether a record is exempt from mandatory disclosure under a conditional exemption, please give a brief statement as to the purpose of your request”
So basically, if the City doesn’t like you or know you, they are likely to withold information from you. There’s no freedom of information in this. Requests from anyone they don’t feel like communicating with are routed through their formal process where they can delay responses, make up fees for responding, or deny access altogether once their legal staff is called in.
There’s no “freedom of information” if the information requester is scrutinized and the information is not free.
How Deep is the Rabit Hole?
Does the simplest of information requests become a quagmire? We tested this recently with a basic question that should have been posted on their website. We asked a business person in town to request the current membership of three of the City’s core citizen committees.
The first thing this person noticed was how there aren’t any direct emails for staff on the city website. Nor are there for any departments. You can get phone numbers for the departments, but not emails. Email goes through one contact form to nobody in particular. This is sad. Instead of encouraging staff to work with the public directly by responding to requests between more important tasks, the City forces citizens that need fast answers to waste a lot of time on the phone and then waste the time of many staff members to find the person with information.
There was a response the following day. It was a list of one committee and a statement that the request was being forwarded to another person in charge of committee records. Within one minute, that email was withdrawn and no further responses came back from the City.
The obvious conlcusion: citizens are discouraged from knowing who is tasked with deciding their fate on committees. Apparently a citizen must fill out and submit the entire information request form, pay fees, and wait through a tedious process just to find out who is involved in the local process of democracy.
Life informs us that there are only two reasons for keeping secrets of this nature at the local government level. Power and corruption. Witholding information exerts power and meters influence to select individuals in support of a particular agenda. Corruption occurs when information enters the hands of a privilaged few to the exclusion of others who may also benefit from it.
For example, think of a kid that sees his brother do something bad. He tells his brother he won’t tell the parents if the brother will let him play with a prized toy. Imagine another brother was around who wasn’t in on this and he didn’t get to play with the toy. This is how information becomes power and corrupts. If everyone including the parents knew about what the bad boy did, the information has no power and no child can gain power over others with it.
This begs the question…who is benefitting from city information policies?
Something on the website about information request policies provides an answer:
“The following individuals, groups or organizations shall not be charged for photocopying costs or the first thirty (30) minutes of staff time….the requesting party may ask the City Manager to reduce or waive all additional fees associated with providing the requested record: a) any member of the City Council; b) a board, commission or committee member of this City; or c) any othe government agency.”
We’ve always wondered why people volunteer for these Committees and never seem to leave. They gain access to a lot of information without paying for it and can completely bypass the information request process. Wonder what they’ve been up to. Wonder if any committee members have used such exclusive access to their advantage. The answers will surprise you.
Those questions are exactly the kind that government doesn’t like and why they restrict access. Proof of corruption. Thank goodness there was a website with these policies posted. Of course, these were posted to establish the framework for restricting information access.
The worst part of the information access dilema for a citizen is a catch-22. How can you request information if you can’t gain access to information about a document’s existence? They learned that one from the feds. Thanks Big Brother.
POST NOTE: We discovered more of the missing information on the City’s website. Oddly, information on committee memerships can’t be found by following the links from the home page to committees, as those links either do not exist, or are (at this time) broken. Instead, a google search for the exact committee membership locates a link to a stranded page in the City’s website that lists the members of the Downtown Advisory Committee and contact info for each, including some emails. So while it is good this information exists online, it is bad the City can’t handle updating the most basic elements of its own website to make it locatable.
We also found the dates for some meetings, but not where one would think. A typical user would go to the committees section to seek information on respective meeting details and schedules, but that’s not how it works. Instead, the City has a generic events calendar where they post holidays and parades. They also post some of the meeting details for committees there. Why they can’t handle automating a link back to the navigational structure for committees is anyone’s guess.
As we were finding this information, or business person continued making inquiries about meeting membership by email, following up with questions about why no one would answer his questions or provide such basics as the exact time of upcoming meetings, a full day later, still no response.
UPDATE 2: Nine days later, still no response. Further updates are pointless. Suffice it to summarize that the City government both ignorantly and intentionally witholds information that is supposed to be public accessible.
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