February 21, 2009

Link to Sunshine Law

On December 11, 2008 I addressed the Board of Commissioner at the public hearing of the 2009 Budget and CIP. The following remarks are excerpted.

“It is my experience that the most thoughtful and productive budgeting process involves an open and thorough exchange of opinions. I was seriously taken aback last week when I realized that the Ad Hoc Budget committee and the Ad Hoc CIP committee were constituted in such a manner to circumvent the presence of a quorum and thus open meeting laws. Not only does this deprive the citizens of information crucial to understanding choices the Commissioners are making, it de facto deprives half the Board of access to these conversations.

Commissioner Reed and Commissioner Gordon, notably, have stated that they reflect the sentiments of many of their constituents who want no degradation of services. I fully believe that they DO represent those feelings. My question is: How do their constituents even know what services might be impacted?

Much has been made of the fact that the Commissioners were presented with $2.5 million of possible cuts to the budget from which $800K was chosen. I dare say the public would be more appreciative of your hard work if they could have witnessed your deliberation.

Finally, I would tell you that the biggest loser from the lack of transparency is the Board of Commissioners. Not only are half of you left out of the initial formative process, not only are you deprived of the informed opinion of your constituents, not only do you foster a suspicion that there is something to hide (as unfounded as that may be), but you now are forced to spend hour upon hour, week after week at what amounts to the eleventh hour of the “process” arguing and justifying your positions many of which might have been resolved earlier.

Economic forecasts suggest that town budgets will continue to be under strain for the foreseeable future. In the new year, I ask that you make the citizens of Lower Merion your “partner” in the budget process through greater transparency.

The Board has thus far chosen to continue on a path of “secret” Ad Hoc committee meetings. They have referred such issues as public contributions to private non-profit agencies, potential restructuring of trash pick-up, staffing levels, and prioritizing of capital expenditures to name a few to these closed meetings. There is no doubt that deliberations occur and recommendations are made to the full Board. At least five times during the Dec. 17th, 2008 budget hearing alone, the Commissioners defensively cited the AHBC and the AHCIPC as the vehicle for extensively “vetting” the budget.

The Board’s rationalization for continuing this practice is varied. They are worried about the morale of the staff if it is known they are considering options that may result in staff reduction. They are worried about posturing of Commissioners before the public. But mostly they are worried that deliberating in public and accepting public comment is cumbersome, time-consuming, and (though they might disavow this) puts them in uncomfortable scrutiny over hard choices.

As citizens and taxpayers we have a legal right and responsibility to, with all civility, give our Commissioners our input. We cannot do this if we are locked out of the process. I urge you to contact your individual commissioner and the Board as a whole and tell them to follow the Sunshine Act and open the Ad Hoc Committee meetings.

Audrey Romasco

Haverford, LMT