Saturday, July 22, 2017

SCN Editor Marlo Pronovost

A concerning lack of transparency

Government runs best and most effectively when it does so transparently.
Open meetings. Open records. Direct answers to questions about projects and plans. Welcomed questions from the public on just about anything. That’s the way it is supposed to work.
We are, after all, talking about publicly elected officials and taxpayer money.
In regards to plans for the county to build for the future, the Stillwater County Commissioners have not been transparent.
Trouble started very early on in the process.
In a nutshell, the commissioners hired Spectrum Group Architects in 2012 to look into remodeling the old hospital and moving all the county courthouse offices to that location. Spectrum met with department heads to gather information about space needs and then later met with the departments and commissioners together and presented a mockup of how it could work.
It was at this point that safety and other concerns were first raised. District Judge Blair Jones and Stillwater County Sheriff Cliff Brophy were two of the loudest voices, calling attention to the issue of having courtrooms located in a building adjacent to an assisted living center, as well as a day-care across the street and schools on the opposite side.
These concerns were echoed by the U.S. Marshal’s Service, which conducted an informal assessment after visiting the old hospital.
The commissioners assured all parties involved that no decisions had been made and that other options would be looked at.
A little farther down the road, things appeared to have stayed on the original course. In a letter to the commissioners, Jones accused them of “surreptitious behavior” based on a subsequent meeting with a Spectrum architect who reportedly told the judge the commissioners had allegedly instructed the firm to prepare plans for only one option -- that being the remodeling of the old hospital.
Back to square one.
In a response letter, commissioners said that other options would be considered. In addition, the News published a column penned by the trio that stated Judge Jones did not understand the process being taken in the matter.
It took Spectrum nearly two years to complete that second feasibility study, called the options package, and it was presented in three public meetings held earlier this month. Spectrum used the same data for that they had gathered for their first feasibility study.
No information about any of those options was made available prior to the meetings as the commissioners said they did not have the results themselves. Forget about citizens being able to read the study for themselves and come to those public hearings with specific questions. The release of information about this taxpayer funded $70,000 study would not occur prior to the public meeting.
That lack of information was a familiar story.
In the nearly two years that stretched between the signing of that amended agreement and the public meetings, mention of the project on the behalf of the commissioners was scarce.
Once a regular item on the weekly agenda, courthouse issues almost completely disappeared from that document. When questioned about the status of the options package feasibility study, commissioners provided short answers. It was like pulling teeth to get any information from them at all on the project.
When a citizen asked about the status of the study last November, commissioners said it was due back at the end of the month. November came and went, as did December, and the report was not made available until the January public meetings.
Not only have the commissioners been silent about the project, they at times have been almost hostile when questioned about it. And that is certainly a far cry from transparency.
It is understandable -- and even wise -- that the commissioners first looked at the old hospital. The county already owns the building and had saved enough money to cover the estimated $2.65 million cost.
As it turns out, the old hospital is not big enough to accommodate all the county offices. A move there would have been pointless.
A project such as this is enormous and by their own admission, something the commissioners have never experienced before. That’s all the more reason to go the extra mile to make sure the public has all the possible information available, even before you reach the decision-making point.
Choosing to be a public servant is an honorable and respect-worthy role. We owe our thanks and gratitude to those who opt to walk down that road. The commissioners certainly fall in that category.
But we do not owe our blind trust to them. And on this matter, the Stillwater County Commissioners have not been forthcoming.