20Jun/16

It’s Your Turn

As we quickly approach the city wide elections in August we wanted to take some time to reflect on our group’s efforts from the past few months. Our group was started as Take Back Enterprise in early 2015. We were formed as a nonprofit and nonpartisan group with the sole mission of educating the citizens of Enterprise about the need to bring open government to our city. Open government is about having transparency, collaboration, and participation between the elected government and its citizens.

As a part of this mission we have requested numerous things from our elected politicians. Some of these requests have been granted (please read our previous blog posts for a full picture of what we have be doing). Because of our request we now have city council meetings videotaped and posted online. However, they have refused to do the same for their work sessions. Also, because of our request we now have more minutes from work sessions and council meetings posted on the city’s website. However, minutes from other government board meetings are not posted for the public’s easy access. Also, our requests for true financial transparency in the form of online financial transparency software have gone unanswered. Furthermore, only one of our elected officials has been willing to meet with us to discuss our concerns. We have, however, exposed many untrue statements and misrepresentations of facts by our elected officials that were used to push their agenda to the detriment of our city. So, while we feel some progress has been made we know that much more needs to be accomplished.

One thing is for sure, our efforts have gotten the attention of the citizens of Enterprise. We have heard you loud and clear. Because of our efforts a few citizens feel like they can bring the needed change to our city and have decide to run for public office. So far, Eugene Goolsby and Perry VIckers have announced their candidacy for seats on the City Council. In addition to this, Milton Shipman has announced his candidacy for Mayor. While our group does not and cannot endorse any political candidate we do feel that it is a good thing more citizens are getting involved in the political process and giving the people a true choice in deciding who is going to lead them.

We would like to encourage all of the citizens to get involved in this election cycle. Do you feel that open government is right for our city? If so, talk to the candidates and encourage them to support open government. Do you want more transparency? Then talk to the candidates and encourage them to support it too? Do you think your opinion matters? Get involved in the process to find out which candidates care more about you and our city’s future rather than their legacy and state retirement. We’ve been working for the last year to inform everyone about our concerns and we’ve heard you say that you agree. Well, now it’s your turn! Our organization can’t vote, but you can. Make your voices heard. What makes America great is that you, as a citizen, have the power to change things. When you enter that voting booth, there’s no one looking over your shoulder. You will have the unrestricted freedom to make your voice heard. The ball is in your court.

In order to not distract from the political process and to allow the attention to be placed on the candidates vying for office. We will be fairly quiet over the coming weeks. We want the candidates to have your full attention. Please feel free to reach out to us via our Facebook page if you have questions about open government. Rest assured we will be keeping an eye on the candidates and listening to see which of them desire to have true open government.

16Apr/16

What’s In a Name?

It was just over a year ago when Take Back Enterprise got it’s start. Our group started as an effort to make all the citizens in Enterprise aware of the growing concern among many that Enterprise was headed in the wrong direction and that the political establishment wasn’t interested in listening to the concerns of many of the citizens in our town. By all appearances, they had their own agenda and it didn’t appear to serve the best interest of the community.

While we have stated repeatedly that we felt Enterprise is and has been a great community to live, work, and raise a family in, we have also been clear that we were concerned with the direction we were headed. Since our inception we have worked to inform the public about some things that have given credence to our concerns. We have also fielded many questions about our name and have been asked “just who took Enterprise?”. Some people feel our name is just right. Some agree wholeheartedly with our stated mission, but have some reservations about the name. Other people are confused about the name because they don’t see any basis for our concern. The political establishment has also expressed concern about our name and have plainly told us that they aren’t going to work with us “with a name like that”.

Over the last few months it has become very evident to us that the political establishment is not going to work with us to address the concerns of many of Enterprise’s citizens. Even during an election year it doesn’t appear they have any interest nor feel any responsibility to join in any real dialogue.

In an effort to refocus on our core mission and for those citizens who feel our name is a little too abrasive, we began discussing changing our name. Our desire is to be as inclusive as possible and to reach as many citizens as possible with our message of Open Government. Our group is not about taking Enterprise back from one group and just giving it to another. Our message of Open Government is about bringing transparency, participation, and collaboration to our city government so that everyone in Enterprise has equal access to information about what our government is doing everyday that affects all the citizens and businesses in our city. Every citizen and business in Enterprise has an equal stake in what goes on and has an equal right to have their voice heard.

Our group is working hard for everyone in Enterprise, even the next generation that is yet to come. What happens in our city today affects not just us but many generations to come and we feel it is important to fight for that. In that vein we will be changing our name to “Everyone’s Enterprise”. We have accomplished so much in the last 12 months yet we feel that there is much more to accomplish. In the coming months we will work even harder to bring you important information about decisions and events that affect you. Please contiunue to follow us at our website (everyoneseprise.com) and social media.

11Feb/16

Our Response – Part Three (the city resources defense)

…this is part three of a three part response. For part two please click HERE and part one click HERE.

We recently visited the Enterprise City Council meeting on Tuesday 1/19/16 to find out why they had denied our requests to release the city’s financial data in Excel format, which they readily admit they are capable of doing. We also wanted to know why they felt $7500 was a “reasonable” fee to charge for such data even though it shouldn’t consume near that much in city resources to produce. You can read more about our visit HERE and watch a video of our address to the council HERE.

The city has formulated a three part defense for their actions:

  1. The law does not require the city to comply with the request and they have the Attorney General Opinion to prove it. (we responded to this in PART ONE)
  2. If they give it to us in the format we have requested, then we will be able to manipulate the data and therefore fabricate falsehoods about the city’s finances. (we responded to this in PART TWO)
  3. It would not be a responsible use of tax payer money and resources to comply with the request; therefore they must provide it in an alternative format that we did not want.

THE CITY RESOURCES DEFENSE

We will now respond to the third defense which is “the city resources defense”. They claim that they are simply following the city resolution that allows them to charge for the consumption of city resources to produce the document. You can see the resolution they are referring to by clicking HERE. Of course, they are hiding behind a resolution that THEY passed and signed and that THEY can easily amend or replace by a majority vote of the council, but we digress…

Let’s examine this resolution in more detail. The resolution in place simply states, in reference to public records requests, that they wish to charge for “associated costs, if any, by any member of the public…” A form was attached to the resolution to set the 2005 costs and the council gave the city clerk the authority to adjust those as needed. The form has been updated twice to increase costs of paper copies and to add the additional categories of certain “digital records” to the form. The research labor of $10 per hour has never been changed according to the form on the city’s website, except the first hour is no longer free.

It’s important to note that the original form that the council approved included two basic categories, one for research labor at $10.00 per hour, and one for paper copies at $0.20 and $0.25 per page depending on what it was. This seems to indicate that they wished to charge $10 per hour when a city employee had to work on a public records request. It also indicates that the city wanted to recoup its printing costs when a requester needed paper copies produced. It is clear by the wording of the resolution that the council intended to recoup the actual “associated costs” incurred by the city, not produce revenues or profits.

So that leads us to our request. If the resolution passed in 2005 was intended to allow the city to recoup its actual “associated costs” then how is the city arriving at a $7500 price tag for the information we have requested? The only “associated costs” that we can ascertain are the research labor to compile the reports, the DVD they are going to burn the info to, and the DVD case to store the disc in. A blank 4.7GB DVD will cost you $0.25 and the case will cost you another $0.85 at the local office supply. Let’s round that total up to $5.00 just to make sure all other expenses are covered in relation to the data storage. That leaves $7495 to devote to research labor. It is disingenuous to suggest that there are any other “associated costs” tied to our request. The current charge of $10 per hour after the first hour must mean that they estimate it will take 749.5 hours to complete our request. That’s close to 19 weeks of work based on a 40 hour work week.

We have discussed our request with multiple out of town accounting firms who are familiar with the Munis software that the city employs. They all claim that this information could be produced within a few hours by anyone proficient with the software. In fact, they say if the reports were scheduled to run after hours it could actually be performed in minutes because the only time consuming activity is the computer processing the data, not human labor. The reports would be ready when the employee reported to work the next day.  The $7495 charge is ridiculous and it is not consistent with the spirit of the resolution passed by THIS council more than 10 years ago. Even if we allowed for the fact that $10 per hour is too low for this type of work, there is no way you could justify anything close to $7500. We estimate that $75 would be much closer to the actual “associated costs” than their current price.

We feel that we have adequately rebutted every defense the city has offered to not provide us the data that we requested, in the format we requested, and at a reasonable price commensurate with the actual “associated costs” of the request. We also feel it’s time that our city’s leaders just come clean and admit why they will not comply with our request…

They just don’t want to.

31Jan/16

Our Response – Part Two (the manipulation defense)

…this is part two of a three part response. For part one please click HERE.

We recently visited the Enterprise City Council meeting on Tuesday 1/19/16 to find out why they had denied our requests to release the city’s financial data in Excel format, which they readily admit they are capable of doing. We also wanted to know why they felt $7500 was a “reasonable” fee to charge for such data even though it shouldn’t consume near that much in city resources to produce. You can read more about our visit HERE and watch a video of our address to the council HERE.

The city has formulated a three part defense for their actions:

  1. The law does not require the city to comply with the request and they have the Attorney General Opinion to prove it. (we responded to this in PART ONE)
  2. If they give it to us in the format we have requested, then we will be able to manipulate the data and therefore fabricate falsehoods about the city’s finances.
  3. It would not be a responsible use of tax payer money and resources to comply with the request; therefore they must provide it in an alternative format that we did not want.

THE MANIPULATION DEFENSE

We will now respond to the second defense which is “the manipulation defense”. We anticipated this defense and would have loved to address this with the council and mayor at the council meeting which is where they have requested we bring our questions and concerns. They however were not interested in a dialogue as evidenced by their silence and their insistence that we sit back down after our 3 minutes were up. This is probably a good time to remind everyone that we have requested, both publicly and privately, a work session style meeting devoted to our ideas of openness in our city government. We feel that this would be a much more efficient way to communicate rather than through blogs, social media, and the main stream media. But we digress…

The city is claiming that we can easily manipulate the copies of the data that they transmit to us. The claim is that all you have to do to an Excel file is open it up, change the numbers around, and then you can fabricate lies about the city and its finances. We do not dispute that this is a possibility; in fact we admit that this would be very easy. But we do dispute that this is an adequate defense to not provide us the data in Excel format.

First, we take offense that they would imply that we would fabricate falsehoods about the city. Our movement is about the truth and having constructive dialogue based on that truth. We challenge anyone to find where we have fabricated numbers and facts to further our cause. If we were caught doing that it would damage our movement because it is antithetical to our mission of openness. Besides, if we wanted to make up numbers, why would we even ask for the real ones? Wouldn’t we just make them up and present them as fact?

The reality is that there is nothing the city can do to prevent the manipulation of data, regardless of format. While it is true that one could easily manipulate an Excel document, it is also true that one could easily manipulate the PDF document that they have offered to produce. To see how easy this is CLICK HERE for an example. This is an excerpt of the October 2015 general ledger that we received last month after we requested a sample of the format they wanted to provide us the data in. Using basic Adobe Acrobat PDF software you can easily change anything you want to change. We removed the headers and footers and inserted “FAKE DOCUMENT” so that this couldn’t be confused with a real one. If you’ll study the document that we have manipulated you’ll see that we changed the Mayor’s car allowance to $3.00 monthly with an annual budget of $36.00. Surely we can’t expect him to be able to put a car on the road for $36.00 a year. We could have just as easily changed the number to $20,000 a month and $240,000 a year but that’s not the point. The point is that regardless of format, data can be manipulated very easily with today’s technology. This includes the format that the city claims they prefer because it cannot be manipulated. The reason we want the data exported into an Excel format is because it is produced in a tabular form (defined rows and columns) that makes it easy to process the data, run reports, make tables, charts, and graphs, etc. If we wanted to manipulate the data or change it in any way, we’d just ask for it in PDF like they have offered.

Please stay tuned, we will offer our responses to the third defense in the days ahead.

24Jan/16

Our Response – Part One (the legal defense)

If you haven’t heard, we visited the Enterprise City Council meeting on Tuesday 1/19/16 and asked why they had denied our requests to provide the city’s financial information in Excel format (they have since admitted they are fully capable of producing documents in this format). In addition we wanted to know why they wanted to charge us $7500 for the documents even though it shouldn’t require much effort or expense to produce. You can read more about the meeting HERE and watch the video of the meeting HERE (this is a new, audio-enhanced version that has been edited to only include our address).

The city has formulated a three part defense for their actions:

  1. The law does not require the city to comply with the request and they have the Attorney General Opinion to prove it.
  2. If they give it to us in the format we have requested, then we will be able to manipulate the data and therefore fabricate falsehoods about the city’s finances. Another interpretation is that we could somehow corrupt the city’s own data even though we have only asked for digital copies of data, not access to the city’s databases.
  3. It would not be a responsible use of tax payer money and resources to comply with the request; therefore they must provide it in an alternative format that we did not want.

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that we do not feel that any of these arguments hold any water. We intend to respond to these defenses in a series of 3 separate posts over the next few days. This way each of their defenses gets the attention it deserves. We will begin today with their first and most fervent defense.

THE LEGAL DEFENSE

Even though in our prepared statement we pleaded with them to not take a legalistic approach to our questions that is exactly where they went. They seemed to imply that we have claimed that they are legally required to provide us the data in a certain format. We have never made such claims and if you read our statement HERE you will notice that we only rhetorically asked this question and stated that we understood that this was their position. We did not dispute this position and even attempted to clarify but were not allowed to by the council.  This is a classic case of our clearly stated message being hijacked because they were either not listening or are being disingenuous.

While they claim that they have no legal obligation to provide us the data in a specific format, they have not claimed nor produced any legal support for a claim that precludes them from providing it in such a format. Simply put, they would not be breaking the law to provide us the data in Excel format.

The reality is that the vast majority of what our city government does is not required by law. There is no law requiring any of the following:

  • City schools
  • Parks and recreation
  • Economic development
  • Mosquito control
  • Yard trash service
  • Libraries
  • Street sweeping
  • We can go on and on

If the city applied the standard that they are applying to our document request to these items among the many other countless things the city does, we’re not sure the city would even exist. It certainly would not exist as we recognize Enterprise today. The legal requirement to do something has never been the impetus for the provision of city services. The expectations of the citizens have always served as that impetus. We believe that Enterprise’s citizen’s expectations of openness and transparency in local government far exceeds the minimum standards prescribed by law. It is past time our city leaders realize that.

Please stay tuned, we will offer our responses to the other two defenses in the days ahead.

19Jan/16

Are we Really Transparent Enough?

Well it’s been a while since we’ve said much.  Rest assured we have been hard at work collecting some interesting data through public records requests.  You may recall that the last time we approached the Mayor and the City Council and asked for increased transparency we were told that the city was already “transparent enough” and that the council had decided not to invest in financial transparency software that would provide information to the citizens that they have a right to access.  Instead they said that anyone needing information should “just ask” and of course pay up.

We took them up on their offer.  We have asked for several pieces of information in multiple requests.  In every case it has taken 3-4 weeks for them to produce the information we asked for and they have charged us for the information each time.  The information we have asked for is easily produced by the software the city uses.  The software will also easily generate the files in Excel format.  So, what we have been asking for would normally not require 3-4 weeks of research; nor would it require enough work to justify the charges we have incurred.

Instead of our city’s politicians agreeing to invest a small amount of money to help make this information easily and freely available to all citizens, they have chosen to require us to jump through hoops to get the information and make us pay for it.  Furthermore, this is actually more disruptive and costly to the city since we have to make repeated requests for the information we are looking for.

Since we began our efforts last year to highlight the need for increased transparency in our city government, at least one astute citizen (not affiliated with Take Back Enterprise) has taken it upon himself to do some research using the information that is available online.  In the graphic below you can see the expenditures and revenues generated by our Civic Center.  You will also see some request for capital expenditures at the Civic Center.

 

civic center graphic cropped

Click on image for full size graphic

 

It is interesting to note that they are willing to invest over $25,000 in a facility that lost $240,000 in 2015 before any depreciation and interest expense is accounted for.  If they are so willing to spend that kind of money there, why won’t they invest the money in financial transparency software?  Why do they want to make us work so hard for information that is ours to begin with? Is there something to hide?

The information this citizen, Derek, used to generate the above graphic was found in the proposed 2016 budget that was posted on the city’s website at our request.  Our push for increased transparency has allowed citizens like Derek to access more information than they have been able to before.  This is just scratching the surface of what true Open Government is.  The more information our citizens have access to the better able they are to hold our elected politicians accountable for the decisions they make.

There is no reason to stop here though.  In the coming weeks we will be telling you more about what we have discovered in our research and records requests.

We also visited the recent council meeting and addressed the City Council and Mayor to share with them our frustration on the difficulties they are causing in our efforts to simply provide information to the citizens of Enterprise that they deserve to have.

We encourage you to read our full statement by clicking HERE.  We would also encourage you to go to the City’s You-Tube channel HERE to watch the video so you can see their response.

Take Back Enterprise is committed to bringing Open Government to the City of Enterprise.  We will continue to work hard to accomplish this.  We would like to ask everyone that supports this effort to get the word out and to let your Councilman and the Mayor know how disappointed you are with their efforts to slow down progress in our city.

03Nov/15

It’s Starting to Heat Up

It seems like the political season here in Enterprise is revving up a little early this time around.  Recently two candidates have announced the start of their campaigns.

In District 2, Eugene Goolsby announced he would be running for the current city council seat held by Tommy Johnson, Jr.  In his campaign announcement, Goolsby said that a “new voice” might be a good thing for the citizens of Enterprise.  Take Back Enterprise doesn’t officially support any candidates, but we are glad to see that at least one citizen has decided to get involved in the political process to at least provide a “different” voice.  Take a look at the article to find out more about what Goolsby stands for.

Current Mayor Kenneth Boswell also recently announced his candidacy for re-election.  At his kickoff party he announced several plans to spend a lot of money on new things for the city.  He said he would like to build a new library, a new recreation center, new soccer fields, a new museum, and refurbish the ESCC swimming pool.

We are curious where the Mayor is going to get all this money to pay for these shiny new things.  Also, has he actually asked any citizens if this is what we want?  This is the first time we have heard anything about these plans.  Have they been discussed at council meetings or work sessions?  It appears that there has been a lot of planning and money spent on conceptual drawings and plans.  At this point we aren’t questioning whether or not these are good ideas, but along with our mission to bring openness to city government we are concerned about how these decisions are being made and whether or not the citizens are allowed to participate in the planning process.  At a public hearing before last year’s sales tax increase the Mayor claimed that the city was broke and didn’t have enough money to invest in first responders and critical infrastructure for the city.  He claimed that we needed a new sales tax to pay for these things.  Now, a year later, he releases all these grand plans to build all of these new facilities and we don’t even have that new firehouse he promised us and, by his own admission, our water and sewer systems still need improvements.  As far as where he says he will get the money, he claims in the article he will get it from a “bond issue”.  To use layman’s terms, this means more debt for our city.

The Mayor’s campaign announcement got us thinking about his career in politics.  We did some research on the past elections in which he has run for the Mayor’s office.  What we found was interesting.  In 2004 (his first election) Kenneth Boswell received 1937 votes out of a total of 1996 votes cast.  In 2008 the Mayor ran unopposed and received 0 votes.  In 2012 he also ran unopposed and received 0 votes. So, in 3 elections for Mayor he has only received 1937 votes.  In that same time frame the city has had five new taxes passed under the Mayor’s watch.  That’s right, in 3-1/2 terms as Mayor he has enjoyed FIVE tax increases.  The more you think about it, his campaign promises seem a lot like the Democratic Debate.  He has promised us a bunch of free stuff we haven’t asked for and promises to pay for it with more debt and more taxes.  Does that sound like “The People’s Mayor” to you?  If he gets elected for a 4th term will he give us another tax increase?  If he does everything he has promised, we might need it to give our first responders a raise.  Rest assured, he will hold a public meeting and show a nice video to tell us he is raising our taxes.

Along with these questions we have a few more for the Mayor and our City Council.  Join us tonight, November 3rd, at the City Council Meeting at 6pm to hear us ask those questions in person.

11Oct/15

More Progress…

On Tuesday, October 6th another step in the right direction was made by our city’s elected officials.  For months now we have been asking the city for several things that would bring about increased transparency, collaboration and participation.  Among those requests were that more minutes of council meetings, work sessions, and other official meetings be posted online for easy access by the public.  We have asked for increased financial transparency in the form of inexpensive software that would post more accurate up-to-date information about the city’s financial activities online.  We have also asked for the current budget with amendments to be posted online for the citizens to see.  Another request we have made is for all official meetings of the council and other boards be streamed and archived online and streamed on a public access television channel.  All of these requests have been made in an effort to increase the openness of city government and to facilitate the participation of the citizens of that government.

Some of these requests have been granted.  There are now more minutes from the City Council meetings and work sessions posted on the city’s website and the current budget is posted online.  While we would prefer to see these items posted in a searchable format, progress is being made and we are happy that they have gone as far as they have.

We made a request a few weeks ago to meet with the entire City Council and the Mayor, but were denied that request.  However, Rhett Marques who District 5’s City Councilman, did agree to meet with us.  He was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to discuss with us some of our ideas about improving the openness of our City Government.  As a result of that, more progress is being made and we would like to thank Councilman Marques for his willingness to have an open and frank conversation about improving the City of Progress.

Last week the City issued a press release announcing that for the first time they had streamed and archived a council meeting online for all citizens to watch, free of charge, at their convenience.  This is another step in the right direction and we are happy to see it and want to thank the city for their efforts to implement some of our suggestions.  While we are hopeful they will expand this to stream the meetings on a public access television channel (for those who prefer this method of delivery), we are certainly grateful for this progress.  If you would like to watch last week’s council meeting you can see it here.

Here is a list of just some of the requests we have made and hope the city will implement.

  • searchable documents along with other website improvements
  • expand video to all other public meetings
  • financial transparency software to the transaction level
  • an improved and more open board appointment process
  • capital project transparency
  • regular townhall forums in the districts to engage and encourage participation amongst the citizens
  • work to develop a true culture of openness in city government
24Sep/15

Open Letter to all City of Enterprise Employees

In his written response to our request to meet with the City Council, Councilman Al Miller stated that in our efforts to bring open government to Enterprise we were “challenging” all the city employees.  In response to that we have written a letter to all city employees.  Please take the time to read this and share it with any employees of our city.  We want to make sure we are clear about what our mission is and how it also benefits the employees of our city.  They work hard to make our city a great place to live and we want them to know that we appreciate them.

Click Here to read the letter

10Sep/15

We are Making Progress!

At the last City Council meeting we made a statement to the Council and the Mayor in which we requested three things.  We requested that the Council and Mayor meet with us in a work session, that they post the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016 on the city’s website and that they budget $10,000 for financial transparency software.

As many of you know by now, we received a resounding “No” to our request to meet with the Council in a work session.  However, we are making progress on other fronts. They did listen to us on our request to post the proposed budget on the city’s website.  We were also told they were going to research the financial transparency software.

While we were disappointed they would not meet with us, we do applaud them for posting the proposed budget online. This is a positive step towards a more open and transparent city government.  Please take some time to click the link below to take a look at the proposed budget.  This is your city and it is important you know how your tax dollars are being spent.  While we have no comments at this time we will be reviewing this budget and will make some comments on it at a later date.  We will also keep you informed about the progress towards the addition of financial transparency software to the city’s website.

CITY OF ENTERPRISE PROPOSED BUDGET FOR FY 2016