We can’t help but be concerned at how the application for a grant to help cover the costs of an intersection’s reconstruction near the city’s industrial park.
During the most recent council meeting, members hedged on the application. That made sense. The city is facing a serious budget shortfall and the money for a local match may simply not be there. It was far from certain, given the council’s previous discussions, that it would vote in favor of the application.
The problem was that the application’s deadline was Monday, March 2, one day before the council’s next scheduled meeting. Members said they would not have a problem with a special meeting to deal with the issue before that deadline. None was called.
But tonight’s agenda includes a retroactive approval of the application. In other words, it was submitted, and now someone in City Hall needs the council to back up the act. There are only a few options that readily explain this turn of events, none of which are good for the people of Ottumwa.
The most benign explanation is that someone called the council members, got approval for the application, and the approval sought tonight is being done with the council’s knowledge. Such an act might not violate the letter of the state’s open meetings law, but it most definitely violates the law’s spirit. Even the most spineless of watchdogs, including the Iowa Public Information Board, frown heavily on such an act.
If that is the case, council members effectively made a decision outside of the public’s view. And they did so on an issue of clear public interest, after the council itself had expressed serious concerns. The public is owed an explanation for a reversal before it takes place, if indeed one has taken place, not afterwards.
Another possibility is that this was done without council members’ knowledge. That’s no better. Such a step would be an attempt to present the council with a fait accompli, a situation in which the act is already done and the council has little choice but to accept it. And, again, it circumvents the public’s right to see decisions the city makes processed in open session.
The fact this is happening at a time when the city is under the microscope more than it has been in years is clearly disturbing. Those involved in such a decision had to know the city’s spending decisions are being scrutinized. They knew the last word the public had was that the council was hesitant. But now, suddenly, the public is presented with the application as a done deal but requiring a retroactive vote to legitimize it.
This is not good government. This is not the act of officials who care about following the law’s clear intent. This is, at best, splitting legal hairs and hoping for the best.
There is no doubt the reconstruction of the intersection at Fox-Sauk and North Court will make it easier for large trucks to get to the industrial park. It’s a project with a good intent and a strong argument in its favor.
The ends, though, do not justify the means. And the means in this case went far afield of what we would expect from the city.
Decisions like this must not be made in the shadows. Decisions made this way undermine trust.
Ottumwans are owed an explanation.