On Budgets, Conservation, and Transparency

Most votes of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors lack any drama at all.  Pro forma votes such as approving minutes are practically reflexive. Two or three times a year we have a zoning request that’s controversial, but they are usually unanimous too (even if rejected).  Often this is because we’ve had our conversations, one on one, with the relevant department heads or fellow elected officials, other stakeholders, and have “all our ducks in a row” before something ever comes to a vote.  This year’s budget vote was an exception.

A budget vote is special.  The annual budget process begins in the fall with each department head and each of the other five electeds (Sheriff, Recorder, Treasurer, Auditor and Attorney) compiling budget plans, with a special emphasis on any proposed expenditure that is new or unusual.  Those items end up in what’s called “the decision packet,” and are voted on line-by-line over roughly two months.  Concurrently, the entire proposed budget is poured-over individually by each supervisor and discussed between department heads and their liaisons (teams of two supervisors, assigned in staggered rotations each year to the various department directors).

All of this is managed by our Finance department, which has won multiple state and national professional awards for their accuracy, transparency and user-friendliness.  Anyone who wants to can see every single jot and tittle of our budgets, online any time.

Most of this year’s process went along without a hitch.  We debated in open work sessions the various proposals of each department and came to consensus for or against nearly everything.  There was one section, though, from our Conservation department that ended up carrying some controversy with it, and in the end, Supervisor Rettig found it to be enough of an impediment to cause her to vote against the entire budget.  It passed nevertheless, 4 to 1.  I will not presume to speak for Supervisor Rettig, and will only refer you to her statements on the matter, except to say generally that she was dissatisfied with the process behind a proposed potential acquisition of land under the $20M, voter-approved 2008 Conservation Bond. For more on how that bond came about, see this pdf.

In addition, there are press reports on the vote and this particular bone of contention here (Gazette) and here (KCRG), and a blog post by Supervisor Sullivan here.  To my knowledge, as of this writing Supervisors Green-Douglass and Carberry have not issued written statements, but they did read prepared remarks at the time of the vote (we all did), and you can find video of the 8 March 2018 formal meeting here (the particular issue begins at minute mark 57:40).

My statement was as follows:

Overall, I believe this is an excellent budget.  No one got everything they wanted, no one got nothing they wanted, and that’s usually a sign of a fair compromise. I have concerns about certain line items and wish some of them could have been handled in a more open way.  I would go into it more deeply but have been advised by the county attorney’s office that I cannot discuss matters that may or may not have been considered in a closed session, regardless of what may have been printed in the press or described in any other media.  There are misconceptions in the public based upon incomplete information. While many may not like this process for myriad reasons, it remains the law and I, for one, intend to abide by it. I respect the Iowa Code restrictions on disclosure and the reasons why real estate acquisitions are discussed in closed session, i.e. that public disclosure has a likelihood of increasing the price the County might have to pay for a property, as may, it seems, have happened recently in different, unrelated potential transaction.

I have been advised that I can say this much:

No transaction has been secured or finalized, and tonight’s budget vote is not a vote to approve a transaction, only to authorize a potential expenditure in the event the Conservation Board approves a proposed acquisition. 

I respect the work of the Conservation Board, its record of accomplishment, and the use of Conservation Bond funds for the purposes described in the bond language – including parks.

That said, this budget increases the county’s commitment to the health and safety of the people of Johnson County.  It takes strides to improve mental health care, commits resources to the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm and to conservation in general, it furthers our commitment to sustainable sources of energy and fighting Anthropogenic Global Warming, bolsters law enforcement, and improves the workplace for Johnson County’s 500+ employees – all issues I campaigned on and will continue to fight for.  If that costs me votes one day, then so be it.

My vote is AYE.

Addressing concerns that the process has not been transparent, on the grounds that discussions of any proposed land acquisitions must be conducted in closed session, can be a little thorny.  It’s tough to address topics when I am legally prevented from discussing the details of anything that may or may not have happened in closed session.  Whether an item should or should not have been in a closed session is immaterial. If it was in a closed session, I cannot talk about it. But I would like to emphasize something Supervisor Sullivan mentioned in his prepared remarks at the meeting (his remarks, in the above-linked video, begin at 1:14:08).

 

Since the bond was passed in 2008, under the guidance of our Conservation board and staff and with approval of the Board of Supervisors, it has given the people of Johnson County the Clear Creek Trail, Ciha Fen, Pechman Creek Delta, improvements to F.W. Kent Park, Sutliff Access, and the Cedar River Crossing.  Each of these that included new land acquisition was conducted under the exact same process as was the line item in the FY2019 budget that seems to have caused so much controversy.

I would also like to reiterate that the budget vote, including the controversial Conservation line item, closes no sale and acquires no land.  What it does do is make it possible, as I said in my prepared remarks that night, for a potential acquisition to go through if and only if the Conservation Board, through its ordinary process – again, the same one it has always used – determines that it is beneficial to the people of Johnson County.  That Board’s record to date of doing so has been exemplary and has given this supervisor no reason to doubt their judgement thus far.

All five of us on the Johnson Count Board of Supervisors, I feel safe in saying, are steadfastly committed to the principles of conservation, and to the preservation of Johnson County’s natural abundance in particular.  As long as I am on this Board I will fight to preserve, protect and defend as much open natural space as is feasible.

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