Shouldn’t public servants face questioning?

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When I wanted to write about City of Colorado Springs’ police budget, former police chief Richard Myers refused to talk to me unless Steve Cox, who was the city’s chief of staff at the time, were present.

I thought this would be a waste of taxpayer money, and wrote about the department’s budget without Myers’ input.

When I wanted to write about the city’s fire department budget, I met with department CFO Leslie Hickey and interim chief Richard Brown, who has since been named department chief, and they answered any and all questions.

When my column was published, Firefighter Union President Jeremy Kroto, wasn’t happy with it. He suggested that the numbers I received from Hickey and Brown were incorrect. And even though we didn’t agree he was pleased that there was focus on the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

However, when I requested a meeting with Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte to ask him about his credentials and compensation package, I was told by communications staffer David Grossman that Forte was “not available for an interview.”

When I asked why, I was given this response:

“Mr. Forte’s annual salary of $276,750.03 has not changed since 2007. His 2010 short-term incentive was $31,411.13 and his long-term retirement incentive was $39,852.00. His 2011 short-term incentive was $34,455.38 and his long-term retirement incentive was $41,927.63. $50,000 has been budgeted for CEO incentive for 2012.”

I guess someone with a pre-assigned “incentive” doesn’t need to talk to the press or provide a resume. Given his latest shameless stand-off with the mayor about CSU’s line of credit, he is probably ready to retire (and he can obviously afford it).

I also recently contacted the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, the friendly but suspicious chairwoman for the Department’s Board of Commissioners, Sharon Brown, who is also a Fountain councilwoman, asked for written questions.

After I sent her 10 questions, she called back a couple of days later worried about the “purpose” of my inquiry.

As I send this column off to print, I’m still waiting for answers to the simple questions I asked about the organizational chart of RBD and its budget.

Springs Councilman Bernie Herpin, who serves on the RBD board, also has not answered any of my e-mail questions.

Maybe I’m completely off-base for asking public servants to explain how they are fulfilling their mandate. If this line of questioning warrants an apology, please accept mine right here from these pages.

On the other hand, if the CSBJ intends to serve the business community, if its charge is to inform the public of anything that relates to business matters, and if the questioning focuses on monopolies (we can’t get electricity elsewhere), then how public officials operate is of paramount interest.

Who is in charge of licensing and permits? Who is enforcing codes and fining businesses? Who can we appeal to when bureaucrats play power games?

The fallacy of the digital age is that “it’s all there in the website,” as Councilwoman Jan Martin said when admonishing me for asking about her maneuvering of the Memorial process (which didn’t work out once the public was more involved).

The danger of the digital age is that in the name of accessibility, the promise of liberalizing or democratizing the community is actually being undermined. It may even serve to control information more tightly, since there are no other modes of communication.

Besides, as every businessperson knows from experience, numbers alone don’t tell much. They need to be contextualized and interpreted.

If I have been guilty over the past few months of presenting numbers out of context it’s because their context was not readily explained on websites and power-point presentations, and when officers refuse to explain (either because it’s beneath them or because they don’t know, rather than because they have something to hide), then one must resort to printing numbers and waiting for a response.

We all deserve to know because this is what our social contract dictates: agencies levy taxes and fees on us so as to fund regulatory activities (RBD, City administration) or services (fire, police, and utilities).

As citizens we implicitly agree to enter a social contract with other citizens and use agencies to execute our individual wills (majority rule) in a legitimate way: we self-legislate.

This way of thinking goes back to ancient Athens and has been analyzed for 2,000 years by political philosophers.

When our agents — civil servants — forget their complicity in the social contract perhaps journalists or gadflies, as Socrates liked to describe himself, need to remind them of their role. If they don’t like this, they can resign; it’s that simple.

I realize that writing this column might prevent me from ever doing another project here. It’s a fair price to pay.

Raphael Sassower is a UCCS philosophy professor. rsassower@gmail.