Exhibit A on municipal transparency

Published 10:53 pm Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Some in Suffolk city government believe they get a bum rap on transparency.

Their defensiveness on the topic is understandable. Voters in three city boroughs last fall swept three incumbent council members out of office — and left City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn on shaky ground — largely on the single issue of transparency, or lack thereof. Pundits on this page and elsewhere have repeatedly chided city leaders for being less than forthright with taxpayers.

Against that backdrop, a clearly frustrated city official challenged me recently: “Name one example of our not being transparent.”

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Given the timing, he or she might as well have served up the equivalent of a chest-high fastball that a baseball slugger would promptly knock out of the park. Just the week prior, City Treasurer Ron Williams, a constitutional officer who does not answer to the city manager, and Councilman Mike Duman had tipped off taxpayers on a monumental matter that could have cost taxpayers a cool million bucks without their even knowing about it.

City Information Technology Director Ken Beam, at the direction of the city manager, had written a letter to a software vendor serving notice of the city’s intention to cancel an expensive contract some six years in the making and on the cusp of the software’s implementation. Depending on whose estimate you believe, the termination (now on hold, while cooler heads have an opportunity to prevail) would have flushed up to $1.1 million in taxpayer money down the tube.

Williams blew the whistle on that costly decision with an impassioned letter asking City Council members to intervene. Duman, to his credit, raised the issue publicly during council members’ comments at the end of a meeting in early February.

That gave Cuffee-Glenn a perfect opportunity, with cameras rolling and reporters in the room, to look taxpayers in the eye and provide a thorough explanation for a major decision that had been made without public knowledge, much less input.

Instead, she blinked, telling council members she’d be contacting them individually, “so that you can have the facts.”

Meantime, taxpayers, who were equally, if not more so, entitled to “the facts,” were left in the dark. They know what they know today only because of Williams’ letter, Duman’s comments at a council meeting, and this newspaper’s reporting.

And City Hall wonders why it has a transparency problem.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.