A FIGHT TO THE DRAW: POWER & MONEY PREVAIL AGAIN
By George Archibald
It was my disappointment that a battle to obtain Clarke County public documents about our community government’s policy deliberations on spending and taxes in the recent budget process, while successful, was fought to a draw in Clarke County Circuit Court on Wednesday, June 13, as county leaders resisted vigorously at my ultimate expense.
County attorney Robert T. Mitchell, Jr. of the Winchester law firm of Hall Monahan Engle Mahan & Mitchell was the big winner, as he was paid an hourly rate of $200 to the tune of almost $10,000 in total fees at taxpayers expense to fight my request for release of the county budget documents under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) without charge to me.
My requests in March were for documents regarding public school surplus carryover funds of $247,227 that the School Board proposed in its Fiscal Year 2013 budget to use as a down-payment for new computer software to upgrade the county’s outmoded information technology (IT) systems that presently don’t work well together.
As Clarke County elected officials and staff do government by email between meetings, an important part of my request was their policy communications, planning, and discussions behind the scenes, out of public view, by email to each other. This is what they resisted giving up over many months until ordered to do so by the court.
Part of the documents provided were from a $25,000 contracted study last year by a Chicago group called the Government Finance Officers Association, which said Clarke County’s IT system was inefficient, caused inaccuracy, and wasted manhours and money.
It is ironic that I am being made to pay for pointing out that the county is wasting yet hundreds of thousands more dollars this year because the Board of Supervisors did not allocate the $247,227 to the so-called Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system because Supervisor John Staelin of Millwood objected and threw himself in the way of Chairman Michael Hobert’s proposal to invest in the ERP.
After I conceded the fight in court Wednesday, Chairman Hobert told me the ERP discussion will continue among the Board of Supervisors, so hope still remains that finance committee chairman Staelin’s roadblock will be overcome and the county’s IT system will be upgraded at some point sooner rather than later. The GFOA study showed that the county would recoup its investment over time, so its senseless not to proceed with the recommended upgrade.
But there’s always someone who uses the argument of fiscal responsibility to block change that would end wasteful inefficiency in the way government works, giving conservative governance a bad name.
So in the name of fiscal responsibility the county ended up billing me a total of $617.53 for reimbursement of the time and effort expended by county staff to retrieve and produce the 2,643 pages of records and emails in response to my FOIA request, as ordered by Judge Wetsel, and I agreed to pay the money to settle the case. Judge Wetsel said he thought the amount of the bill was reasonable.
So thanks to the staff heroes who did the work. Here’s the list, with the billed amount for each person’s time. As usual, lower-paid clerks did most of the work while their highly-compensated managers’ time cost much more:
• Laura Walburn, executive assistant: 13 hours, 50 minutes, $282.67;
• David Ash, county administrator: 1 hour, 27 minutes, $97.17;
• Thomas Judge, Joint Administrative Services director, 4 hours, 7 minutes, $206.46;
• Gordon Russell, IT director, 40 minutes, $23.36;
• Susanne Vaughn, Joint Administrative Services clerk, 30 minutes, $7.89.
I thank them for their service.
(For the record, the county’s $617.53 bill amounts to almost half my total monthly Social Security income, so the powerful, rich government bureaucracy certainly prevailed over me again.)