Chris Graham: What do they have to hide?

City Council debates transparency, and transparency isn’t faring too well right now

Column by Chris Graham

Let’s just say it like it is. Government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people. I had no heartburn when the critics came out of the woodwork to criticize President Obama and congressional Democrats for meeting behind closed doors to discuss options for getting health-care reform back on track for passage. And I did get in a lather when the president called the bluff of his GOP critics by inviting them to a public discussion and was met with catcalls that he was trying to set some sort of political trap in so doing.

The business of government is the public’s business. That’s true in D.C., and it’s certainly true in Waynesboro.

“I as one Council member have some ideas about the budget that I’d like to share. I’m not going to lay them out on the table, but I think the Council should have the opportunity to talk to staff about their ideas, either individually or some kind of work session, that, you know, is not public, because you don’t want to, uh …”

That was Waynesboro Vice Mayor Frank Lucente last week fumbling for the right word to provide cover. Suggestions flew across the table at the Feb. 17 Waynesboro City Council work session. I couldn’t tell who it was that offered “scare.” City Manager Mike Hamp suggested “unnecessarily alarm.”

City Councilwoman Lorie Smith stopped short of speaking critically of the vice mayor, but she was on the verge. “I think the transparency of where we’re coming from as elected officials is going to be really important,” said Smith, who buttressed the observations of Mayor Tim Williams. “We didn’t hide anything last year,” the to-the-point Williams said before putting his two cents in on the matter. “We only had a couple of budget meetings last year, and I think we may need a couple more, two, three or four more,” Williams said.

Frank Lucente at last week’s City Council meeting (1:25)


Last year, you may remember, Lucente led a push to seriously cut back on the schedule of public budget-deliberation sessions that had been put in place under former City Manager Doug Walker. Critics of Lucente suggest that he wants to move things from the public sphere to the private to be able to deflect negative fallout from budget cuts that he wants to champion onto Hamp.

A hint that Lucente might be thinking that way: “I can share my ideas, and Council can do it individually or in twos, but I think it’s important that you receive some guidance from us to help you do it,” Lucente said at last week’s City Council meeting.

“Guidance” to help “you” – Hamp – “do it.” There’s something else in that particular statement that could point to another motive for pushing things behind closed doors. Lucente suggested meeting “individually or in twos,” which would allow Lucente and team up with fellow traveler Bruce Allen to meet with Hamp to discuss their, ahem, ideas toward the budget. City Council observers would tell you that Lucente’s ideas are Allen’s ideas. An exchange at the end of the discussion regarding the budget last week would seem to give some indication of this. After Smith backed Williams on the need for additional budget work sessions, Allen responded in frustration.

“I see two hours, and we said we’re $183,000 short in our budget, and we will have some shortcuts coming from the state. We’re already aware of that. And we’ve had a short presentation of where we are as far as our income coming into us, and it’s taken two hours to tell us that. I get lost in these meetings sometimes,” Allen said.

Smith interjected: “Trying to reach a multimillion-dollar reduction level is not going to be an easy task.”

“I didn’t say it was easy. But …”

Allen let his words trail off.

“I just get lost sometimes,” Allen said.

Unfortunately, Mr. Allen, because of the way you guys want to do business, we can understand the feeling.

Those of us with the ability to keep up have a right to know how our city’s business is being transpired. You’re spending our money, remember, $183,000 here, $2.6 million there, $4 million maybe for something else coming down the pike …

Bottom line: It’s our business, and we have a right to know how you’re conducting it.

Bruce Allen: ‘I just get lost sometimes’ (:34)

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