June 5, 2014 10:27:32 AM
You know you have a habit when you preform the behavior even without thinking about it.
Case in point: Columbus city government.
Tuesday, the city council met in executive session during its monthly meeting to discuss personnel issues. Personnel issues are one of the exceptions to the state's open meetings laws. The theory is that some matters should be discussed privately among council members to protect the privacy of a city employee.
Fair enough, right?
Yet during Tuesday's meeting, the council emerged from executive session to announce that one city employee had retired and two other city employees would be getting a $2,500 raise to take over the duties of the person who resigned.
While some personnel matters are delicate and protected by those open meetings laws, the names of current city employees and their salaries are not protected, yet both city chief operations officer David Armstrong and city human resources person Pat Mitchell declined to share the names of the retiring employee and the two employees who received the raises.
Perhaps most puzzling is the fact that this appears to be an applaud-worthy action by the council that could save taxpayer money. Why hire another person if the duties of that position can be delegated to existing employees? Given the bad publicity that generally accompanies the council's actions, this would have been an excellent illustration of the council looking out for our financial interests.
Clearly, no thought was given to the matter. Instead, the council operated in this matter the way it always seems to operate.
There is a culture of secrecy in Columbus city government that arouses suspicion even when the council is doing something so transparently benign as consolidating job duties to save money.
Unfortunately, this culture of secrecy is not limited to the council. The Columbus Police Department routinely withholds information that should be available to the public through the media. It was true when Selvain McQueen was chief, and the trend appears to be continuing under the command of interim chief Tony Carleton.
The most recent example came Saturday and involved a shooting in Columbus. The suspect turned himself in later in the day, but when The Dispatch contacted Carleton for information on the incident, Carleton would not reveal the age or address of the suspect, identified as Dino Turner. Basic information gathered in incident and arrest booking reports is open to the public. We report the ages and addresses of people arrested to make sure we differentiate that person from others who may share their name.
Also on Saturday, a 32-year-old Columbus resident was found laying unconscious behind the Trotter Convention Center. The man has since died. Police have yet to respond to multiple requests from The Dispatch for comment on the circumstances. In the meantime, in the absence of an official statement from investigators, speculation and rumor is running rampant in social media and on the street.
One of the responsibilities of our council and city department heads is to keep the public informed as to what is happening in their departments and in the city. Additionally, the public has a right to account for every allocated penny in local government. This includes salary changes.
When the council or department heads withhold information that the public has a right to know, they sacrifice their own credibility. When they make media and citizens file formal requests for every piece of information they are obstructionists.
What sort of childish attitude is that?
The Dispatch will continue to press for open, responsive government because the citizens of Columbus deserve it. We have filed the formal requests for the above-mentioned raises. The city has seven days to respond. We will continue making these formal requests for information until we have a government who is able to use the term "transparency" in a meaningful way.
We have always welcomed discussions with city officials on this subject. To date, we've never been given anything that approaches a direct answer to those questions.
Maybe they are evasive on this subject because secrecy is just a habit, and it's hard to justify a habit.
Maybe that's why the culture of secrecy has become an unstated core value in our city government.
Old habits are hard to break.
Especially if you never try.