Thursday, December 06, 2007

If a tree falls in the forest…

The County Commission held a number of meetings where they discussed the switch to a defined benefit (db) retirement program for county employees. Unfortunately for taxpayers, they held every single discussion during their daytime Wednesday “workshop” meetings. No public comment is allowed during those meeting. And, it is impossible for 99.999% of the public to attend. They may as well have been standing in a forest with no one around.

In addition to my formerly expressed concerns regarding the certain tax increases down the road to pay for the db program, I’m very concerned about the process used to arrive at the switch. I mentioned two concerns in my opening paragraph. Here are a few more:

Unbiased Committee?
A committee was appointed by the Commissioners comprised of county employees and one citizen. The lone citizen was an attorney who is friends with and/or has done business with some of the Commissioners and/or Interim County Manager.

Wouldn’t it have been advisable to have a committee that had a few people with expertise in the area being studied? All but one person on the committee stands to benefit when the db plan is implemented. I know all of the folks on the committee, they’re good people overall. I don’t doubt for a minute that most of them went in trying to be objective and they all did their best. But if the commissioners intended to study the issue fairly they could easily have found a few in the community in the insurance and/or financial arena willing to serve on the committee.

Fair Study?
The “retirement study committee” looked at one thing: defined benefit retirement. They didn’t consider any other options. They didn’t study the current system to see if it could be tweaked. If they did look at any of the other options it certainly wasn’t what they were tasked with looking at and they didn’t report on it during the daytime workshop meetings that I attended or taped in absence.

Additionally, unless I missed something, they didn’t invite a variety of experts to advise them on the study. They used so-called experts who could very well end up getting the county’s db program business. Seems kind of like getting a used car salesman to advise you on which car to buy. What are the chances the salesman is going to steer you to a car on another lot? Chances are he’ll point you to the one where he makes the highest commission. Duh.

If you truly want a fair, objective study, you look at all sides. Governments across the country are squirming as they try to find ways to get out of db programs. I wonder if anyone from Henry County (db in the hole), Peachtree City (db in the hole), Atlanta (already moved away from the db program where possible, but in the hole with those that are left)… GM, Delta Air Lines, the list goes on and on and on, stopped by to share their concerns with the study group?

Public Input
I went back and looked at how the defined benefit issue was listed on the agenda. The September 5th daytime meeting lists it as a report from the “Retirement Study Committee.” I doubt that would hit anyone’s radar screen as a topic of critical importance.

On the October 3rd daytime workshop meeting agenda it was listed in this manner, “Steve Vaughn of Government Employee Benefits Corporation of Georgia (GEBCorp) will present the Board with Additional Information regarding the findings of the Retirement Study Group.”

A “Retirement Study Group.” How’s the average citizen to know what that entails by going on-line and looking at agendas? And, even if they do figure it out, are they then expected to take time off from work to come to a meeting? One where they can’t even voice their opinions?

They voted to go forward with the db program in this Wednesday's workshop meeting. How was it listed on the agenda? Try this and see if you thought there would be a vote on the issue: "Further discussion of the retirement study committee decision tree and critical elements for the Board's decision making process with respect to a retirement plan. This items has been addressed at the September 5, 2007 Workshop Meeting, the October 2, 2007 Workshop Meeting and the November 7, 2007 Workshop Meeting."

Anything in that lead you to believe they were going to do anything other than discuss it again?

Lest you waste time scratching your head over that question, here's how it was listed on the Nov. 7th agenda (where it was simply discussed and not voted on): "Presentation of retirement study committee decision tree and critical elements for the Board’s decision making process with respect to a retirement plan. This item has been addressed both at the September 5, 2007 Workshop Meeting and at the October 3, 2007 Workshop Meeting."

An evening meeting with public comment would have gone a long way toward making the process seem open. However, without any of the documentation or access to the findings of the “study committee” there’s not much anyone could say of substance. One former County Commission Chairman went before the Board with questions. He was ignored, then disparaged at this Wednesday’s meeting for not being at previous meetings. You know, the meetings held during business hours where public comment isn’t allowed?

Unbeknownst to the Commissioners, he did have access to some of the material. The Fayette Front Page films and/or audio records meetings and provides it either on-line or will give a copy to anyone requesting it for a nominal fee. He was aware of at least some of the rosy-scenario information provided by the “study committee” and the GEBCorp “consultants”. He asked legitimate questions that taxpayers should have answered since they are, for all practical purposes, being shut out of the process and will be footing the bill.

A lot of things get done in the meetings being held during normal business hours. A lot of critical decisions are made in those daytime meetings --- without the ability for public input and often times without public knowledge until after the fact.

The original intent of a daytime meeting was to allow those who couldn’t make an evening meeting the opportunity to be able to address the Board and to have access to their Commissioners. By mutual consent, past Board’s have avoided making any high priority decisions or discussing controversial issues during the daytime meetings because they WANTED public input. They wanted open government.

Unfortunately, things have changed. The switch was the brainchild of Commissioner Herb Frady. He made it sound good. It’s a workshop, not called a meeting. At the same time they changed the intent of the Wednesday meeting, the commissioners made a few token changes regarding public input during the evening meetings. Then they started making key decisions without listing the item on the agenda. Then they started making decisions during the Wednesday meetings. Then they started setting up handpicked committees which meet behind closed doors, shutting out the press and the public.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Our Commissioners are meeting at times when no one can hear. And yes, they are making a huge sound. Unfortunately, it’s a sound that will reverberate for years to come as we dig into our pockets to pay for the decisions they’re making.

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