Martino: Return to the Sunshine of Council Chambers

In an August 5th Palm Beach Post article discussing the City of Palm Beach Gardens budget process several statements attributed to Council members Eric Jablin and David Levy attempting to defend a flawed course of action are very troubling. They excoriate any semblance of openness, transparency, and accountability in the process of governance that the current City Council is following and in particular with the creation of the City’s 2015-16 budget. Their comments did little to assuage the obvious process grievances. Further, their quoted remarks revealed more questionable practices and problematic rationalizations for a touted process that fails to satisfy the entitled needs of the public to information.

The Public’s governmental process preference is simple and required by law. All governmental policy process, direction, thought process, and discussion must be conducted with the public in attendance. Exceptions to this should be close to never and allowed only when a demonstrably higher law exists.

The article states that current Council members say the current budget process is already as open as it gets. Jablin says the draft budget is “online” so anyone can read it. Jablin says he spends a lot of time vetting the budget with the City Manager and the staff. Jablin is quoted, “This is the process…I’m proud of the process…it’s a good process.”

Okay, let’s analyze this good as it gets process! If the draft budget is “online” then where did the draft come from, who created it, at what public or private meeting was it discussed, and so forth. If one does not have access to “online” or is technically challenged like so many of us, how does this “good process” satisfy the need for public information in an open government forum? Admitting, as Jablin says, that he spends a lot of time vetting with the City Manager and staff, stabs at the heart and soul of open government. If the other Council members follow this same path then we have a very suspicious “good process” that at best pulls the shades down on the Sunshine law and at the worst blinds the Sunshine law in the darkness of backroom shadows.

Levy sites an award that the City receives from the Government Finance Officers Association for Distinguished Budget Presentation, as testimony, that “peers and experts have said that this is an open and accessible budget process.” He also says, “…it is a very good budget, and a very good budget process.” Levy’s attempt to rationalize an award given for Presentation and not for process, or creation, or content, into factual substantiation for “an open and accessible budget process” has no creditably.

Jablin and Levy are currently serving in the ceremonial City Council positions of Mayor and Vice-Mayor. In the Post article, for Jablin and Levy to posit the proposition that the City Council is practicing open government, stretches believability, and is less than probable. Their own words and admissions demonstrate a lack of understanding and respect for openness, transparency, and accountability. When Jablin says and Levy reiterates, “I’m proud of the process we established, and I think it’s a good process” even though it excludes the information that the public is entitled to have demonstrates little respect for the electoral trust they were given.

In my opinion, the City Council needs to come out of the backroom shadows and return to the sunshine of the Council chambers. More publicly scheduled meetings to discuss any and all City business is warranted and expected. Those would be steps toward a “good process” and a process to be proud of.

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