Last week, Schuylkill County government officials talked a lot about transparency.
Actually, it was more of a discussion on how transparent they weren’t going to be.
It’s good they got something on the record.
But we got a pretty good idea of their take on transparency when we learned they’re making people fill out a Right to Know form just to see a copy of their proposed 2022 budget.
If they’re making regular citizens jump through regulatory hoops just to see the County’s budget, it’s reasonable to assume getting access to more detailed public records will be challenging.
Schuylkill County Has a Policy of Bare Minimum Transparency
At the Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, following a combative exchange on how difficult or not difficult it is to post said budget on the Schuylkill County government website, Commissioner Boots Hetherington said he wanted Solicitor Glenn Roth to issue a statement on the County’s transparency practices.
This had nothing to do with the budget’s location and availability, but at the same time, it summed up how Courthouse officials view their role in being transparent to the public. Instead, this statement was about including certain information with the public meeting agenda that’s required to be posted 24 hours ahead of any meeting the Commissioners have.
The agenda allows people to question proposed actions. But it’s hard to do that if you don’t have details. And details are a premium add-on with Schuylkill County meeting agendas.
In particular, the County is responding to requests to include details on contractors the Commissioners hire as well as more information about supplemental budget adjustments and appropriations.
For example, here’s how a supplemental budget appropriation appears on the meeting agenda the public can see:
You can see that each is numbered (#2021-41, #2021-42). That means there’s a document somewhere that spells out the details on each supplemental appropriation.
And look, the one last week (shown above) on the American Rescue Plan likely has details on how the County is planning to spend that money. It’s an issue they’ve been quiet about all year.
But will you see that? Nope. A copy of that resolution is not included with the agenda.
Instead, they would rather see you fill out a Right to Know form properly in order to see the details. Otherwise, just take their word for it.
What Roth said Wednesday, essentially, is that the County is going to do the bare minimum with regard to releasing that information to the public.
“There have been several questions about transparency and what’s needed to be presented at a meeting, as far as an agenda,” Boots said last week.
Roth said Boots told him to research what the County must actually provide the public in terms of information on a public meeting agenda.
Roth cited “Section 709 of the Pennsylvania open meetings law” and said, “There’s nothing that requires that every single document in its entirety has to be included in the agenda. It merely requires a listing and whether it’s a budget adjustment.”
It’s obvious Schuylkill County is not going to be coming forward with the documents several have requested be included in the meeting agenda. And it’s not just that they’re excluded from the agendas, they’re not available anywhere except through a Right to Know request.
Basically, the folks at the Courthouse are saying, You can see it but if you don’t ask, we’re not going to take the time to show you.
Forcing people to fill out those forms for documents that should be readily available is tedious, inefficient, and rather cruel. They’re only doing it because they think they can. And it’s a giant waste of time. It clearly takes the County 5 days (perhaps more) just to respond to a single simple request (ours for the budget).
It’s one thing to get this behavior from a government that’s not promoting itself as transparent. But that’s not the line coming from the Courthouse.
- Schuylkill County “Working Through” Getting 2022 Budget Online
- Transparency? Schuylkill County Requiring Right to Know Forms for Copy of Proposed 2022 Budget
Photo: Coal Region Canary