Gerber: The more open, the better

Gerber: The more open, the better

September 29th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Commission last week took a step toward openness and transparency.

Let's hope commissioners don't decide to walk it back.

Commissioners agreed Wednesday to vote on whether the public deserves quick, easy access to details about hundreds of thousands of dollars at individual commissioners' disposal.

Each year, commissioners are given $900,000 in so-called discretionary funds, money they can spend on whatever projects they choose, as long as it's in Hamilton County and goes toward government or nonprofit organizations.

Each commissioner is allotted $100,000 a year and, this year, most of the money went to schools for things such as smartboards, library books, soccer-field lights and remodeling. Also benefiting from the commissioners' taxpayer-funded wallets were arts and nonprofit organizations, fire departments, parks and playgrounds.

Much of the money was given out in small amounts, about $10,000 or $20,000 per project.

Commissioner Marty Haynes fulfilled a campaign promise when he proposed a resolution that would require the county to post online how the discretionary money is spent. Commissioners are expected to vote the resolution up or down on Oct. 16.

Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon pointed out in a Sept. 19 story that, while state law requires bids on all county projects of $10,000 or more, commissioners' donations of less than $10,000 in discretionary money do not fall under the law or require a vote.

Most Tennessee counties don't have discretionary funds for commissioners, and the few that do work with much smaller amounts of money, Brogdon discovered.

And Hamilton is the only county in Tennessee that allows individual commissioners to personally direct more than $5,000 in public money per year.

So what's the big deal?

Well, nearly $1 million is a boatload of cash. No doubt it's nice for commissioners to hand out gifts in their districts. It

It allows them to be the hero who buys the high school team its uniforms or funds a new sports field or builds a new playground. And certainly those are good projects.

Still, commissioners must remember that this is the public's money, and the public ought know where its money is spent.

Commissioners have spent an estimated $8.2 million in discretionary funds since the program started in the 1980s. When Brogdon requested the record, he was told the county doesn't keep an ongoing report of discretionary money.

The records are kept in various places, and nobody is really keeping tabs on the spending.

Why it took so long to try make this information easily accessible to the public is puzzling.

After all, what's the downside? Open government? An informed public?

Those don't seem like a downside to me

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.