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The best policy

By PA

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-07-19


Honesty is the best policy. And confession is good for the soul. And the truth will set us free… you get the picture.

It seems Fort Wayne’s City Council is going through a particularly therapeutic stage these last few weeks, advocating openness, honesty, and transparency among themselves and encouraging it in others. And by others, we mean the City.

Fort Wayne’s City Council has begun looking at ways to make most of the city’s spending open to the public.

One bill, proposed by Mitch Harper (R-4), requires that the City post expenses on line on the City’s website. It got unanimous support from council, and the administration expects that information will be available on line by August.

But that’s not all. City councilwoman Liz Brown (R-at large) is working on two bills that would allow for a closer look at how the City handles its consulting contracts. One of the bills would call for a little down time before former city employees can be given City consulting contracts, while the other calls for lowering the value of consulting contracts that require approval from council.

It’s the latter idea that seems to have garnered a lot of attention. Currently, the City needs Council’s approval for any contract over $100,000. Last year, Brown authored a bill that required the administration to prepare a quarterly report on consulting contracts, but believes more scrutiny is needed. Brown says that there have been several consulting contracts — including a site consultant to help the administration in their efforts to keep Navistar from leaving — that have come in at just under the magic $100k. “But also, what’s the bigger picture? What’s the goal here, the policy?” says Brown, pointing out that the deal with General Motors’ Allen County plant last year was worked out between city, county, and administration officials without the help of a consultant.

Part of the impetus for the bill seems to have been the above-mentioned site consultant for the Navistar issue, who was hired for $95k. “What’s the plan?” Brown says. “It’s a year after Navistar announced they were going to leave, emphatically saying ‘we are going to leave’.” Brown adds that she supported the Mayor when he pledged to “do whatever it takes” to keep Navistar in town, but as far as she knows, in the year since the announcement, Navistar hasn’t qualified their statement. “We don’t have a lot of money right now, so I’m not really sure what the point (of a consultant) is. If there have been communications with Navistar, if there’s been an open dialogue, certainly I’m not aware of it, and I don’t know of any other city council people who are aware of it.”

Ironically, that $100,000 threshold was set by City Council back in 1992, when the Council’s president was… Tom Henry. During a press conference and an accompanying statement on July 12, Mayor Henry said that 18 years ago “…Council was responsible for approving every single consultant contract signed by the City. This struck many of us as an unnecessary obstruction to the smooth working of City government, so we set a threshold of $100,000, under which the Mayor could enter into financial agreements without the consent of Council.”

Furthermore, the Mayor goes on to say that the issue of the city’s consulting contracts has been misrepresented. “The impression has been created that the City, under my direction, has entered into numerous new contracts with various consultants for amounts just under the $100,000 threshold, which would require Council approval. This impression is simply false. Let me be crystal-clear: the City has an annual operating budget of over $200 million, and in the two and a half years since I took office, these contracts account for less than one percent of the City’s budget.”

But the Mayor concedes that the current council has a different idea of how to handle contracts granted by the City, so he has asked City Clerk Sandy Kennedy, newly-appointed Deputy Mayor Beth Malloy, Council President Mary Bender, and two other members of the city council to find a “workable, agreeable approach to City contracts.”

As far as expediency goes, Brown says there are a number of options the council and administration could explore so as to avoid getting bogged down in reviewing city purchases. Furthermore, Brown doesn’t see why the “working group” has to be such a formal situation — she expects it to be brought up in council in the next few weeks. “Then we can have an open and public discussion of what the limits should be, or if we should do it at all. Maybe with councilman’s Harper’s proposal, it’ll be a moot point. But we’ve all heard grumblings from the citizens, so I think it’s a fair discussion to have in public.”

But let it not be said that City Council is above a little self-examination of their own. Councilwoman Karen Goldner (D-2) proposed an ordinance that would require council members to file an annual ethics disclosure statement disclosing any possible conflicts of interest. Council members would report their business interests, employers, and any positions of power they hold — and similar information about spouses and dependent children — and they would have to refrain from voting on any issues where they, or members of their household, could be seen to have a vested interest.

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