By Curtis Lindner
I’m no lawyer, but even the public knows it’s wrong to cloak a city committee’s deliberations in secrecy when none is needed. Anybody diligently doing the public’s business or spending the public’s money should be scrutinized.
What’s at issue here is a broader point than transparency within the City’s budget, and something that is far more important to Cottonwood’s citizens. What the public deserves is open meeting transparency — not the Verde News supporting the City of Cottonwood’s alleged ‘transparency propaganda’. The public is being told again and again it has no right to know in advance what the city intends to do with taxpayers’ money, before it is spent. Same for City Councilmembers: There are instances where City Councilmembers were told or were denied the right to review, analyze and debate in advance important decisions regarding City expenditures before taxpayers’ monies were spent.
And now some Council members are objecting to being excluded from secret discussions within the City which may have developed in possible violation of Arizona’s Open Meeting Laws — the habit of two elected city officials meeting with the city manager and attorney as a private “caucus” before voting on certain controversial issues.
Two cases in point:
In a commentary published in the Verde News February 27, 2016 by former city councilmember, Randy Garrison, Garrison states his concerns about a lack of transparency in City government. Quote: “Recently the Cottonwood Council approved refinancing a debt created when the City bought Cottonwood Water Works several years ago. This is exactly what was done last year when the City refinanced the debt incurred from purchasing the Cordes Lakes and Clemenceau water companies. As stated in another editorial last week, the refinancing was of great benefit to the City and it’s water customers, who ultimately pay for these loans. As my fellow Council member Terrance Pratt loves to say, “this is a NO brainer”, and I whole-heartedly agree. Saving the City money ultimately defers increases and stabilizes water rates, and helps our customers through sound financial management...” “…But there was a catch to this [WIFA bond] refinancing scheme. The “catch” had to do with the conditions tied to refinancing the debt, which required the City to include some type of infrastructure project before the new loan could be approved [adding more debt]. The new loan was financed through the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona (WIFA). The purpose of WIFA is to assist communities in building and financing Water system construction…” “…As a result of this refinancing, the City ADDED $2.5 million to its current bonding. The Council discussion about this new debt, in my opinion, was sparse at best. It failed to meet a basic transparency test. Taking into consideration the City had an entire year to prepare for the current WIFA proposal, we as a Council should have at least had some discussion when being asked to ADD $2.5 Million in debt to our current bonding. A presentation from our knowledgeable Water Utility Manager on future system needs, weaknesses, or opportunities would have been helpful. Even an overview on strategic improvements that will create efficient operations would have been useful.”
“The Council could also have been given a presentation from the City’s Economic Development Director on the value of adding areas of service, and the impact such an investment would create when lobbying new industry or hospitality partners. Given that we had an entire year to work on this fantastic opportunity, who knows what solutions could have been created through an open process of investigation and exploration.”
“Sadly, this was not the approach used for the City Council’s recent approval. We were presented with a package, decision already made, proposal already accepted. Is it too much trouble to include the Public, or the entire Council for that matter, in public decision making? This is not transparency, this is not how to build consensus, and this is definitely not how open government is supposed to work.”
The second case: The Decision to Rehire Dan Leuder, former Cottonwood Development Services General Manager
City council members, Mayor Joens, Vice Mayor Karen Pfeifer, City Manager Doug Bartosh, and City Attorney Steve Horton, were reportedly told, by a majority of city council members, not to consider rehiring Dan Leuder, retired Cottonwood Development Services General Manager as a consultant after his retirement was effective April 30, 2015 and Leuder began drawing a City pension and post employee health care benefits. Allegedly, Leuder was under fire related to his aggression and anger management issues, and after the city allegedly had received dozens of complaints from city employees, contractors and the public.
Instead, two elected officials, Mayor Diane Joens, Vice Mayor Karen Pfeifer, and City Manager Doug Bartosh and City Attorney, Steve Horton held a secretive, executive session meeting sometime after Leuder’s retirement in 2015, and decided to rehire Dan Leuder without a contract and to keep the contentious decision secret from the City Councilmembers.
I sent a letter to the City Clerk asking for any contracts, checks or disbursements paid to Dan Leuder or his corporation under the Privacy Act, and received the attached documents from the City Human Resources Department. Leuder’s first check for consulting services was dated November 2, 2016. He was working without a contractural agreement with the city of Cottonwood, and the check was signed and approved by Mayor Diane Joens. Partly because Dan Leuder retired May 2015 under fire for his aggression, City council members, Randy Garrison, Tim Elinski, Terence Pratt, Ruben Juaregui and Jesse Dowling verbally forbid city leaders to rehire Leuder in a meeting. The Council members said they were ‘shocked and blind-sided” when they received a copy of the attached documents.