Shown The Door 11/24/94
By William Simonsen
Reporting on the news is really fairly simple most of the time.
The first rule is — be nosey, ask a lot of questions.
Questions often lead to more questions and sometimes to answers.
This story contains many more questions than answers.
Last week I tried to ask questions of a public official and got no answers.
I asked to be shown the records of the Cooperative Planning Coalition, a loosely knit organization of private business and government which is spearheading the latest countywide planning effort.
Instead I got shown the door.
Instead of getting information, I got told my questions were “inappropriate.”
The public official is Kristine Lutton, campaign director in charge of raising money for the latest countywide planning effort.
I think Lutton is a public official and the records are public records. Lutton would deny being a public official I suspect.
Although she doesn’t work directly for any governmental agency, she does work as a fund raiser for an organization partially funded by Flathead County.
Lutton said her firm, Strategies, Inc., is under contract to the CPC.
The Flathead County commissioners have donated more than $20,000 to CPC.
This is a very fine line. If an organization takes money from a public agency, that organization becomes accountable to the public.
I think the taxpayers of the county have a right to know how their money is being spent.
And I think they deserve to know who is coming up with the rest of the money.
Are there people or groups or businesses with a profit motive donating large amounts of money to the project?
Who are they and how much have they donated?
Are they getting a tax write-off for their generosity?
Lutton said the planning effort will cost about $400,000.
She said Design Workshop, a professional planning firm from Colorado, is under contract to CPC for $350,000.
Lutton said her firm’s fees and other expenses will cost $50,000.
What is the money being spent on?
She said Design Workshop is being paid on a monthly basis, as is her own company.
Are the payments for a certain percentage of work completed on the project, or are expense vouchers tendered to the coalition?
Who approves the payments?
Who signs the checks?
Lutton said her firm has raised about $370,000 in cash and pledges so far.
But last week CPC went to the county commissioners and asked for an additional $30,000.
The commissioners said their budget would not allow the expense. Commissioner Howard Gipe also pointed out that CPC is getting free office space from the county which is worth about $800 per month.
Has CPC already spent the entire $370,000 it has raised?
If all that money has been raised why does CPC need more money now? The project is scheduled to take more than a year to complete.
Aren’t the folks who pledged money paying up?
Is the cash going out of CPC faster than it is coming in?
Are the pledges worth the paper they are printed on?
All I wanted was a look at the books.
Lutton told me that a list of donors was being prepared and “triple-checked for accuracy” before it would be released.
I don’t want to see a “triple-checked”, whitewashed list. I want to see raw data and then ask some more questions.
Unhindered, unfettered questioning is the only way the facts ever comes out.
That’s why Montana has an open pubic records laws.
I think the citizens of Flathead County have a right to see more than a sanitized list of donors when those people are planning the future of the county.
So far, all the press releases from CPC have pointed to a very uncomfortable fact — the donations have come from those who may or may not have an opportunity to increase their profits depending on how the county is zoned.
I do not believe large corporations have hearts of gold.
I do not believe they donate money to worthy causes unless they can influence a policy or make public relations points to improve their images.
If you doubt this theory look at the list of donors to candidates during the next election.
Donors do not support candidates, they support advocates. Advocates who will sponsor programs or law or administrative rules to the donors benefit once the candidate is in office.
It is a cruel reality of democracy in the late 20th century.
But I could be wrong.
And the only way I will find out is if I am able to examine the books of CPC.
Design Workshop may be doing a fine job.
CPC may be a worthy public organization with selfless donors.
The county may be correct in supporting the effort.
But the county should demand an full and complete accounting of all the money raised, and should insist any and all records of the organization be made public or immediately withdraw its support.
An official from the County Attorney’s office told me that the county doesn’t have a right to demand an accounting from CPC any more than it has a right to demand an accounting from any subcontractor for services in the county.
The countywide planning effort is not a contract to shovel snow from the sidewalks around the courthouse.
It is a matter of setting public policy. A study of how growth will be allowed to affect all the citizens of the county.
Anyone can drive by the courthouse and readily see if the snow has been shoveled from the sidewalks or not.
Discerning the progress of a planning process is not nearly as easily done.
The county money is being passed through the county planning office enroute to CPC, Lutton and Design Workshop.
The municipal governments of Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell are also helping to fund the planning effort, as they partially fund the planning office.
I think the county and the cities have a duty to demand a full accounting for its money. Officials owe it to the taxpayers as surely as taxpayers must pay the county and the cities their property tax before Nov. 30.
For the governments to do less would mean they approve of keeping citizens in the dark, that they condone hiding information about who is paying for public policy.
Without full disclosure of the complete accounts of CPC the planning process will be flawed.
It will always be suspect.
When someone in a public position tries to hide something from a reporter, or any member of the public, it raises suspicions.
Why is that person hiding the information?
What is that person hiding?
What is really going on here?
The point is a simple one — any citizen, not only a nosey reporter, should be able to walk in and ask to see who is paying for studies that will be the basis of future public policy.
© 2013 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.