published Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Gerber: The more open, the better

The Hamilton County Commission last week took a step toward openness and transparency.

Let's hope commissioners don't decide to walk it back.

Commissioners agreed Wednesday to vote on whether the public deserves quick, easy access to details about hundreds of thousands of dollars at individual commissioners' disposal.

Each year, commissioners are given $900,000 in so-called discretionary funds, money they can spend on whatever projects they choose, as long as it's in Hamilton County and goes toward government or nonprofit organizations.

Each commissioner is allotted $100,000 a year and, this year, most of the money went to schools for things such as smartboards, library books, soccer-field lights and remodeling. Also benefiting from the commissioners' taxpayer-funded wallets were arts and nonprofit organizations, fire departments, parks and playgrounds.

Much of the money was given out in small amounts, about $10,000 or $20,000 per project.

Commissioner Marty Haynes fulfilled a campaign promise when he proposed a resolution that would require the county to post online how the discretionary money is spent. Commissioners are expected to vote the resolution up or down on Oct. 16.

Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon pointed out in a Sept. 19 story that, while state law requires bids on all county projects of $10,000 or more, commissioners' donations of less than $10,000 in discretionary money do not fall under the law or require a vote.

Most Tennessee counties don't have discretionary funds for commissioners, and the few that do work with much smaller amounts of money, Brogdon discovered.

And Hamilton is the only county in Tennessee that allows individual commissioners to personally direct more than $5,000 in public money per year.

So what's the big deal?

Well, nearly $1 million is a boatload of cash. No doubt it's nice for commissioners to hand out gifts in their districts. It

It allows them to be the hero who buys the high school team its uniforms or funds a new sports field or builds a new playground. And certainly those are good projects.

Still, commissioners must remember that this is the public's money, and the public ought know where its money is spent.

Commissioners have spent an estimated $8.2 million in discretionary funds since the program started in the 1980s. When Brogdon requested the record, he was told the county doesn't keep an ongoing report of discretionary money.

The records are kept in various places, and nobody is really keeping tabs on the spending.

Why it took so long to try make this information easily accessible to the public is puzzling.

After all, what's the downside? Open government? An informed public?

Those don't seem like a downside to me

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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gypsylady said...

The question isn't whether or not they should be transparent - a day late and a dollar short for that - its whether or not our commissioners should have way more than other Tennessee county commissioners to "gift" to their constituents.

September 29, 2013 at 2:50 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Transparency is not the issue at all. Gypsylady is correct. The boatload of $900,000 in commission campaign, I mean discretionary money needs to be discontinued. Put $900,0000 back in the budget and the Commissions can plan projects in the budget, not outside the budget. The people should learn about the planned expenditure in advance not after. What Marty Haynes is offering it to post how they spent the taxpayer campaign, I mean discretionary funds after the fact. Abolish this campaign slush fund.

September 29, 2013 at 9:33 a.m.
soakya said...

gypsylady and aae1049 are absolutely correct. Transparency is not the issue. This is nothing more than buying votes.

September 29, 2013 at 11:12 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Wake up Times Free Press, you missed the point entirely on discretionary funding. It should be abolished. You liberal ding bats :-)

September 29, 2013 at 9:22 p.m.
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