After getting a nasty surprise through the media last month, city council took swift steps to ensure it learns of city-commissioned reports in a timely way from now on.
The September issue of ***Focus magazine revealed a $34-million price tag to upgrade 16 municipally-owned buildings to current seismic code. The consultant submitted its report on the issue to city staff in December 2010, but council only learned of it thanks to investigative journalism.
“My first response when I realized that we had not got this significant information was to be mad at staff,” said Coun. Lisa Helps.
Upon reflection, however, she realized council had never set guidelines for sharing reports with council.
“So really, it’s our fault,” she said.
Helps and Coun. Marianne Alto reacted to the development by crafting a motion that orders staff to forward all third-party reports to council within 30 days of their receipt.
Their initial motion cast too large a net. The city commissions 300 to 400 reports each year, many of which deal with such minutia as plumbing and arborist reports, city manager Gail Stephens told council Thursday.
Instead, council voted on a compromise. Council will now receive all third-party reports dealing with city assets with budget implications of at least $1 million within 60 days.
The reports, however, will not be shared with the public until such time as they are brought to a meeting of council, and accompanied by a staff report.
It’s a situation that left Coun. Geoff Young feeling uncomfortable.
Passing information to council without telling the public “violates the basic principle of open government,” he said. “I don’t like it at all.”
Subsequent motions were passed, however, that ensure both council and the public have access to a list of all commissioned third-party reports, as well as the value of these contracts and the name of the winning consultant.
Referring to such a list, council can vote to request to see any completed report prior to staff analysis. Theoretically, council could also vote to rise and report on the findings of any report, should it feel the public has a right to know.
The change puts the decision to share findings publicly in the hands of nine elected officials, rather than at the discretion of one city manager.
The point of the entire exercise, said Coun. Shellie Gudgeon, is to send staff a strong message that council needs to be better informed.
Council left out of the loop before
Focus magazine’s revelation about the cost to seismically upgrade city-owned buildings wasn’t the first time council found itself out of the loop.
In July, the News discovered through a Freedom of Information request that city staff were aware of a major cost escalation for the bridge replacement project well before it informed council.