Editorial: data request watchIn early July, the News-Chronicle made 11 requests for information from the City of Two Harbors. We received responses on four of them in July and the rest this past week.
By: Lake County News-Chronicle, Lake County News Chronicle
In early July, the News-Chronicle made 11 requests for information from the City of Two Harbors. We received responses on four of them in July and the rest this past week.
The requests are a response from readers asking about certain city issues. Here is a summary of the answers we received on the remaining seven requests and updates out of Monday’s regular meeting of the city council.
The city has a formal process in acquiring public information, including filing an official request form that then gets reviewed by city administrator Lee Klein. As always, this page welcomes input from city leaders to clarify the issues.
News-Chronicle: Request for review all communication between engineering firm MSA and the City of Two Harbors administration, staff, and council members in any form regarding the water improvement project from Jan. 1, 2011, to July 8, 2011, specifically, communication regarding water meters and problems with parts for pumping stations.
City: We received a smattering of email from Feb. 2 to July 8. They deal mainly with MSA engineers communicating with Water and Light Department Supervisor Luke Heikkila in ramping up the new water tower and systems. No other form of communications were included.
Issues included fixes to the paint job on the new tower and word in April that the pumps at pumping stations were having problems keeping up. Eventually, in June, it was deemed the undersized pumps needed to be replaced, delaying the project four to six weeks.
There were a few emails regarding water meters, mostly in dealing with the state to get them included in the project after it was discovered they weren’t in the financing package the city signed with the state. The Minnesota Department of Health ruled June 28 that the city had intended to include meters in the project and added them to proposal.
The bulk of the 50-plus emails involve MSA representatives and Heikkila, as expected in the technical intricacies of the project, with little to no exchanges from city administrator Lee Klein or council members despite plenty of concern over the spring about the water meter issue. City Attorney Steve Overom asked at Monday’s council meeting that any email exchanges concerning the meters be brought forward for review.
News-Chronicle: Request for review any dates of city council performance reviews of city administrator and copies of those reviews. Also request for review city policy regarding city administrator reviews and contract for employment with the city.
City: Reports that no such data exists concerning reviews of the city administrator. There also does not appear to be a contract with Klein aside from the boilerplate agreement between the city and its “confidential” employee union, which we received. It includes no language on employee reviews and covers the city administrator, finance director, human resources director, and administrative secretary.
News-Chronicle: Request for review an accounting of all costs associated with “Mayor’s Block Party” in 2009 and 2010, including donations and in-kind services.
City: Bottom lines on budgets given to the News-Chronicle show that the costs for the block party in 2009 were $5,984. Receipts from donations and services were $9,809, meaning there was $3,825 left over. But the starting balance for the 2010 fund is $0. And the costs in 2010 were $6,132 with donations of $11,452, showing leftover funding of $5,320.
But city finance director Rick Sundstrom said the numbers we received aren’t right, and kindly tried to describe a convoluted accounting system where some donations shown weren’t all for the block party itself. We wondered why the city would give us a balance sheet for the two years of the block party with such irrelevant and seemingly random numbers. Sundstrom tried to explain the system but it still was confusing.
There’s one line item in 2009 showing the Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce getting paid $1,000 out of the block party fund. President Gordy Anderson said that payment was from city development funds for its Grow Minnesota program that gauges the health of the region’s businesses.
Attached to the budgets were timesheets showing that city workers spent 35.5 hours on the party in 2009 and 72 hours in 2010. Those expenses aren’t included in the line items.
Big-ticket items in 2009 were $754 for T-shirts, $604 for slide rental, and $1,900 for stage setup.
In 2010, the largest costs were $600 for the slide, $1,000 for a movie screen, $1,189 for stage setup, $574 for advertising, and $1,900 to performer Travis Johnson.
The impetus in getting this information was that some readers have wondered about the costs associated with what they call a “beer bash” for the mayor. What we discovered is some convoluted accounting. Even though the block party is paid mostly by donations from entities like the Two Harbors Area Fund and area businesses, it would be nice to have an understandable accounting of what the generous donations pay for and to know where leftover money goes.
News-Chronicle: Request for review all communication in any form between city attorney, city administration, or council members with representatives of Sam Cave, et al, from Jan. 1, 2011, to July 8, 2011.
City: No information provided, citing Minnesota State Statute 13.393, which is highlighted on this page.
City attorney Steve Overom refuses to even tell the public the name of the attorneys representing Cave, let alone any details of the negotiations, and we didn’t expect anything different after our request.
This week, the “no strings attached” deal the city struck with Cave to reclaim some parcels of land near Agate Bay took a bad turn when Overom reported that the council would have to agree to pay $13,500 in taxes and other fees to get the deal done. The surprise was the nearly $10,000 in taxes the city will pay for 2010 and 2011 on land it doesn’t own.
Would you like some more detailed explanation on how such deals – this one costing taxpayers $10,000 – come about? We would. The attorney simply bringing up the issue at a council meeting and blithely expecting the council to say “sure, you know best,” is not good enough. It amounts to an unelected official telling taxpayers how to spend their money.
The council needs to be more curious about what exactly is going on in the case and demand information on just what the issues are and how the city is moving forward. It would also provide a good accounting of the hours being piled up by the city attorney.
News-Chronicle: Request for review an accounting of all costs associated with Lakeview National Golf Course operation since Jan. 1, 2011, along with an accounting of revenues and any transfers into or out of enterprise funds involving the golf course since Jan. 1, 2011.
City: Another confusing spreadsheet was provided, this one showing year to date revenues at $598,190. Unfortunately, all but $51,854 came from other city funds transferred in and final expenditures were $249,520 in the hole when you count paying off the bond still attached to the property. Confusing? Let’s put it this way: The course this season, up to June 30, took in $51,000 through course fees, cart rentals, and the like. But operating expenses – wages, contracted upkeep, supplies, insurance – have cost the city $125,000. That means on just operating costs versus revenue from customers, the city was in a $75,000 hole.
Maybe the city council can explain to taxpayers again how the restructured golf course operation is saving money. Will it make up on the revenue side in more consistent course fees in July and August? We’ll see.
News-Chronicle: Request for review an accounting of all costs associated with production and distribution of “City Scene” newsletter up to July 8, 2011. (2 issues)
City: Printing and postage costs for the City Scene newsletter is $852 for two issues.
News-Chronicle: Request for review the city employee survey administrated by RJF Agencies and the results as compiled.
City: Survey results have not been compiled.
Update: There is no change from what was reported last week except that Klein said at the council meeting this week that he would contact those who are doing the survey to get a timeline on its release.
RJF Agencies called the News-Chronicle this week to tell us that since the company was sold earlier this year, it should be noted that the Two Harbors employee survey is now a project of Solutions Insurance Agency, which became fully independent of RJF after the sale. It was an employee of Solutions who had contacted the newspaper to dispute our earlier findings.
Next week: A look at the costs associated with creating a mayor’s office.