Phoenix government needs to be much more transparent - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Commentary

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Phoenix government needs to be much more transparent

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Posted: Thursday, March 18, 2010 11:00 pm

Transparency.

You might as well get used to that word. You’re going to be hearing it a lot from me. I don’t believe the city of Phoenix is as straight and forthcoming with information that citizens need to determine whether we’re doing a good job managing their services and using their tax dollars

If Phoenix is going to get out of the economic mess created both by the Great Recession it was handed and the labor cost bubble it created for itself by ramping up to an average $100,000 per employee compensation cost for 14,000-plus workers, it needs help. It needs ideas and buy-in from citizens and the great thinkers in the private sector. That can’t happen if those people don’t get timely and honest information about how the city operates. That can’t happen without transparency.

I have been disappointed at the repeated incidents during the budget process in the past few months where it was apparent that serious PR spin was being delivered – if not deception – rather than spelling out the raw facts. I sent a letter to City Manager David Cavazos asking him to fix this by making transparency a key building block of his administration. Cavazos is a competent guy, and if the guy at the top pushes this as capably as Cavazos can do, it will permeate the ranks.

A few examples of lack of transparency during the budget process:

• Circumventing the law. Language in Propositions 100 and 301, passed by voters, said money raised could be used only to hire new safety officers, not pay existing ones. To get around this requirement, the city laid off officers and immediately hired them back. This was done without telling citizens, or even the whole City Council, that was happening.

• Lack of notice for rushed decisions. The mayor called for a 2 percent tax on food with barely the legal 24-hour minimum notice. That same minimal notice was given to the citizens committee that approved using proposition money to fund police positions. There was virtually no chance for those who think differently to wade in and little chance for those who had to make the decision to ponder it, much less study it in depth.

• Speaking the people’s English. The city says it cut 1,600 “positions.” Actual people let go will be about 50.

• Hiding a key committee. The City Council asked for a study of innovations and efficiencies to come up with ways to perform work better, including moving some of those roles outside the city. A task force originally included only department heads meeting behind closed doors. No non-government people were allowed, no citizens, experts, business leaders who have been through this before, not even elected council members. The committee and city manager has agreed to open that up starting in April.

• Delaying information. After department heads were asked to come up with plans for 30 percent cuts, the city refused to release those recommendations until after the trial budget was released, shortening enormously the time citizens had to respond. The city’s story that it was a “working document” and, therefore, not a public record lacks legal credibility and really was a way of saying, “If you want it, spend the money to sue us for it.”

I think citizens are sick of doublespeak, hide-the-pea games and language gimmicks that paint one picture to obscure another. The mayor, in responding to my pleas for more transparency, says this has been the most transparent budget in history. That makes one wonder what went on before.

I’ve always believed that the best disinfectant was sunshine, that the best way to stop bad ideas and improve other ones is to have as many eyes on them as possible. To get through this budget crisis we need clear, understandable, non-bureaucratic language – broadcast long enough in advance so citizens have an opportunity to wade in on the debate.

I and my office will continue to focus on providing you with information you need so you can tell us what you want done. Talking straight, particularly during down times, is understandably uncomfortable, even frightening, for many. But for the city to move forward, this must be done.

 

Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio represents District 6, which includes Ahwatukee Foothills, Arcadia, Biltmore and North Central. Reach him at council.district.@phoenix.gov or (602) 262-7491.

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