Opinion: Lobbyists hiring, surprise?!?

Last week, it was revealed that the City had in it’s employ two lobbying firms whose function was to lobby our State General Assembly to pass language allowing a referendum vote in Fort Wayne/Allen County on the casino issue. The brouhaha reached it’s apex Friday morning in a press conference held at the City-County Building.

In a strongly worded – and delivered, non-apologetic speech, Mayor Tom Henry stated that no one should be surprised that the City was following this course of action. In part, he said:

[…] Yes, the City of Fort Wayne engaged governmental affairs professionals to help us secure a referendum for the people of Fort Wayne on the issue of gaming, something only the Indiana General Assembly can enact. This is how things get done in the state legislature and in Washington, D. C. To imply a service so basic is secret, extravagant or underhanded is at best ill informed.

I’ll admit that when I first heard his statement Friday morning, I was a bit offended. I consider myself to be pretty much in the know of what goes on in our community and it’s a rare occasion that I’m surprised by a revelation.

But after mulling this over the last couple of days, I’ve arrived at this conclusion: “ill informed” doesn’t apply so much to the citizens of this community as it does some of the media – in particular, one television reporter who seemed to take the revelation very personally – WANE-15’s Megan Stembol. In Friday’s press conference she made it a point of not once, not twice, but three times by my count, to question the Mayor and Deputy Mayor Greg Purcell about why she’d been misled.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, she began asking pointed questions about the City’s Business and Legislative Liaison, Ozzie Mitson and his title, position, how it came to be, etcetera. This came after her station, WANE-15, played on their Thursday 5 pm, 6 pm and 11 pm newscasts, video of Ms. Stembol interviewing Ozzie and pushing for answers and really putting him on the spot. This same station played the clip on every one of it’s newsbreaks Friday morning. Thus, this clip aired at least half a dozen times.

Knowing this, it’s no wonder that the Administration had it’s back up and felt the need to hold a press conference. Of those in attendance, I would have to say that the only reporter who gave evidence of doing his homework was the Journal Gazette’s Ben Lanka, who in concert with Nikki Kelly, discovered the lobbyists hiring.

On a side note, I might add that Ms. Stembol started her story – both on-line and in the report that aired – on Thursday with, “News Channel 15 has uncovered the City of Fort Wayne has two contracts with lobbying firms to push a gaming referendum at the statehouse.” This article, originally written last Thursday after the morning’s Journal Gazette revealed the situation, has been re-written deleting this sentence Friday morning just a few minutes before the press conference.

It was obvious the only way they “uncovered” the story, was probably the same way everyone else in the community did – by reading the morning paper. What was even more apparent was that Ms. Stembol’s ire was due to her not being in the loop and her feelings of being misled.

What is so disappointing about this situation, is that once again, the media stepped in and put the Administration in such a position that any room for meaningful, constructive dialogue about how the situation was handled will probably not happen. And bigger picture, the citizens again feel, whether justifiable or not, they’ve been misled by a local government with a string of such occurrences dating back to Harrison Square.

Over the weekend, I had opportunity to talk with several friends about this situation. Most of them only caught bits and pieces of what occurred and weren’t aware of the specifics. But, their general feeling after watching WANE-15 was that the City again was operating in the shadows and doing it’s thing with little regard for the public. I had one friend who mentioned the “dirty dealings” at the City-County building were still continuing and no matter what I said, I could not convince him that the opposite was true.

As Mayor, I made a commitment to serve the people of this community, and openness is one of the watchwords of my administration. I abide by that principle.

This sentence, was delivered by Mayor Henry during the press conference. It is one we’ve oft heard repeated by him during the almost 17 months he has been in office. I believe that the Administration tries hard to be open, but sometimes only after things do indeed become “public knowledge”.

The problem is, there are two definitions of public knowledge – the Administrations and the citizens. Yes, the lobbyists did register as required by Indiana Code. I went to the State of Indiana’s website to search for lobbyists with varied results. I had difficulty finding the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission even to start with. There were links that were no longer valid links both from inside the website’s search results and using Google. It took me a good 15 minutes to locate the Commission.

When I did locate it, I found a document titled, “2009 Employer Lobbyist List, February 2009“. This list has the City of Fort Wayne listed with Bose Public Affairs Group and Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. No mention of Kreig DeVault, the other lobbyist hired by the City on, according to the News-Sentinel, on February 6th. So, even if I knew where to look, I still would only have had half the picture.

However, the point here is that the mere act of registering does not make it public knowledge. If John Q. Public does not know something, then it’s really not public knowledge and to say anything to the contrary is disingenuous. We citizens should not have to become investigative reporters to simply become aware of what’s going on with our local government.

I have sat in too many public meetings where the question was asked, “What’s the minimum we have to do, by law?” True, this was usually said in regards to public hearings or bidding processes, but it makes one uneasy. It should almost never be a question of only following the letter of the law. And it should almost never be a question of what is the minimum the public has a right to know. It needs to be a question of what does the public expect.

There was nothing nefarious, deceitful or underhanded in the hiring of the lobbyists. However, when the last statement we heard from State Legislators was that they’d not heard anything from the Mayor about a referendum vote, it is a surprising revelation and leaves open to speculation in the media and more importantly, the citizenry, about how open things really are. It leaves the door wide open for the type of reporting and handling we saw from WANE-15. This is unfortunate because especially in this situation, nothing could be further from the overblown mess they (WANE-15) created.

It does open up the legitimate question of what exactly the City is getting for it’s money. With $3,000 a month to one firm for several months, then $6,000 to two firms with the result of State Legislators telling reporters they wish the Mayor would take a firm stand on the issue and that they have not been talked with, it makes you wonder what exactly the firms have been doing.

But let’s set this aside, for the issue is not about hiring lobbyists, the issue is public knowledge.

Part of the difficulty for the Administration is deciding what needs to be revealed, how and when. When discussing decisions, projects or other functions, that discussion needs to include the process of how and when to inform the public. There are some instances where law precludes items from being discussed/revealed to the public. One example of this is Redevelopment’s acquisition of properties. According to Indiana Code, discussion of the purchase or lease of real property up to the time a contract or option is executed, does not need to be revealed to the public.

Another part of the difficulty is the sheer volume of daily activities in our City government. To inform citizens of every action undertaken on their behalf would ultimately prove paralyzing and even counter-productive as the flood would certainly overwhelm most.

The partnership with the citizens local government serves, is a delicate balancing act. Citizens must feel engaged and be cognizant of what it’s government is doing. To borrow a phrase from a friend, “The sunlight must shine in!” When citizens don’t feel engaged and aware, surprises happen and it’s these surprises that should put local government on notice that somehow, they missed the mark and expectations of those it serves – which is really the point.


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