Lack of Transparency Becomes Transparent

The May 9th meeting of the Town Council was unremarkable except for the very end of the meeting. Bill DeFuniak, the Town Clerk, raised the same issue he had spoken about at previous meetings, that of paying invoices for attorney fees to Harris, Welsh & Lukman, the town attorney where the invoices contained no detail about what services were rendered to justify the charges. When Board President Peter Byvoets asked if he couldn’t pay it anyway and solicited a vote to approve payment. Mr. DeFuniak stated that he had become concerned and called the State Board of Accounts for advice. He spoke to Susan Gordon, the second in command at the Board, who told him, “If I paid a bill with no detail I was breaking the Law.” (It is apparent why Mr. DeFuniak felt it was important to retain his own lawyer to review actions requested by this board). Mr. DeFuniak then told the others he would not pay the bill even if they approved it, unless it complied with the law.

Interestingly enough, informed sources tell us that Harris, Welsh & Lukman do not provide bills like this to other municipal clients.

Some additional context will be helpful here. During the Fall election campaign, the party opposing the current party in power requested through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) the detailed charges of the town attorney for several months. The purpose of this request, it can now be said, was to determine whether Board Member Peter Byvoets (now Board President) had been conversing with the town attorney about new ordinances which he was not revealing publicly, sharing with sub-committee members, nor sharing with other town board members. In other words, whether he was secretly preparing a raft of new ordinances that he could spring on the public with little notice or opportunity to discuss them. (Note that such ordinances were in fact presented very soon after the new board was sworn in, too soon not to have been developed during the preceeding administration.)

At the time of the FOIA request Mr. Byvoets, through the town attorney, asserted attorney-client privilege and denied the request. Due to lack of time before the election, the refusal was not followed up in court. After the new board took over, I raised this issue again and expressed my skepticism over the applicability of the privilege to public charges. This time I said that if they did not turn over the billing statements upon a proper request, we would compel their production in court. Following that, the town attorney began to submit invoices with no detail. It was these vague invoices that Bill DeFuniak objected to paying.

Wait, there’s more. When the Clerk told Mr. Byvoets that he would not pay the bill unless it was properly submitted, Mr. Byvoets said that they would vote on it and have a meeting on the issue “in executive session” (i.e. in secret).

A member of the audience then raised a point of order questioning the propriety of conducting such a meeting in secret, but Mr. Byvoets said that it was permissible, and Julie Paulson, the attorney from the Harris firm, said there were a list of exceptions to the rule, and without identifying one, said that executive session was permissible. When one of the board members started to ask a question, Paulson said she would talk to her “after the meeting”.

So, our Town Board is having a secret meeting to talk about their ability to keep their discussions about ordinances and other town business secret from us!

As in the previous article, “Secret Meetings Are Not Transparent“, this kind of thing has been a pattern of conduct with this group. There, despite the noticing of a meeting at the Town Center, sub-committee meeting Chairman Patrick Cannon adjourned a meeting with McKenna & Associates to a fellow Alliance member’s house to avoid public scrutiny.They do not really want want us to know what is really going on, and they do not really want to be transparent. They just want to appear as though they are being transparent.

Secret Meetings Are Not “Transparent”

On February 29, 2016, a meeting began at the Long Beach Town Center. The meeting had been posted on the Town’s website. The meeting was important. It was the first formal meeting which would be had between a governmental unit of the town government and McKenna & Associates, a company which would be selected to survey Long Beach residents regarding conditions in our town. This survey will serve as a basis for action by the Town Board which will affect all of us.

It is worth pointing out, at the outset, that one of the principal selling points of the Long Beach Party in the Autumn, 2015 Municipal Election, was the idea that somehow they would be more transparent than their opponents. One of their incumbent candidates had even been given a newly created “Miss Sunshine” award by the News Dispatch.

When the Chairman of the Comprehensive Plan Subcommittee of the Advisory Plan Commission (CPS-APC), Patrick Cannon, walked into the room at the Town Center he immediately saw that there was a court reporter and a videographer present. He expressed surprise that anyone knew of the meeting and then engaged in the following colloquy:

” MR. CANNON: I – – we were told by both attorneys’ office (sic) that this was not a meeting that was – – that we had to give notice to have anyone here. So, I guess, my first question is: how did you know there was a meeting?

MS. GERAGHTY: (Inaudible)

MR. CANNON: Huhm? Can you answer that question? (Then evidently addressing Kathleen Geraghty). I say we go over to your house.

MS. GERAGHTY: Sure.”

Cannon then remarked that this was the type of problem that he had to deal with in Long Beach and he, Geraghty, one other member of the CPS-APC, and the two representatives of McKenna & Associates then left the Town Center and adjourned the meeting of the CPS-APC to the private residence of Kathleen Geraghty.

Jim Dehner, leader of the opposition party, who showed up at the Town Center intending to watchdog the meeting for the public, was denied that opportunity by its being moved to a private residence and the CPS-APC got to have the secret meeting they desired.

Peter Byvoets, Town Board President, who is affiliated with the Long Beach Community Alliance, as are Cannon (who formerly led the organization), Geraghty, the other members of the CPS-APC, and virtually all office holders in town government and its various committees, then took the position that they did not know sub-committee meetings were subject to the Indiana Open Meetings Act, and had been advised by the Town Attorney that this was so.

Fortunately, Jim Dehner followed up and filed a complaint with the Public Access Counselor, who ruled on April 29, 2016, that subcommittee meetings were indeed covered and that the meeting was held in violation of Indiana Law. Perhaps the town ought to ask for a refund of the fees paid to the Town Attorney for the bogus advice, or perhaps the Alliance members who now make up town government should honor the pledges they made regarding transparency to the people in last Fall’s Election Campaign. There was no intent whatsoever here to be transparent, just the intention to appear as though they were being transparent. They were having the meeting in a public building but did not believe that anyone would know to be present because they were not aware that notice of the meeting had been mistakenly posted on the website.

Moreover, Pat Cannon was aware that this might be an issue. Why else would he consult with an attorney regarding the notice requirements BEFORE the meeting. Well, at least he and Geraghty wished the court reporter and the videographer a “fun night” when they adjourned the meeting to Geraghty’s house.

This meeting was important to our future. The CPS-APC was tasked with the responsibility “to develop a comprehensive plan for the development” of Long Beach. They were meeting for the first time with two representatives of McKenna & Associates, and would map out the process by which the Town will proceed. We need to know that everything was open and above board, like we have been promised it would be.

As the State of Indiana has determined, it was not. – ed

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