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Key information was removed from city’s website

As a concerned citizen and taxpayer, I have been attempting to look into the city of Ashland’s finances during this budget season to better understand the issues and challenges facing the city during these difficult times. I have run into several unexpected roadblocks that are hard to understand and extremely concerning. I want to share my experiences with the public here.

First, essential information has gone missing from the city website. Previously, the taxpayers were able to access a “position report” that lists the job title, salary, benefits and total compensation of every city employee. On April 8, I noticed that it was no longer available. I emailed the finance director asking for an explanation. This is what she wrote, in part:

“We pulled the report because we found errors and data we had trouble corroborating. We will update it and replace it in the next week or so.”

As a former small-business owner, I found that answer to be unacceptable. If these errors are so complex that it might take a “week or so” to correct, one could presume that they might be serious. If there are serious errors in payroll information, those errors would necessarily propagate throughout the city’s finances. During this time of crafting the budget for the next two years, it is essential that accurate accounting information is available to the Budget Committee, the City Council and the taxpayers, to say nothing of the Accounting Department itself in order to conduct the city’s business. I am grateful that any errors present have been identified, because accuracy in accounting is absolutely essential. I trust that the finance director will be able to give the Citizen’s Budget Committee a full explanation of what has gone wrong with this data in the Finance Department, and how it has been repaired.

The Citizen’s Budget Committee is meeting at 3 p.m. today. It is essential that the committee has accurate financial data in hand now.

Second, I noticed that the staff directory, which lists all current employees and their positions, was also missing from the city website. When I asked the human resources director about this, she responded, in part:

“... we removed the department lists from our website. As I recall, it was a recommendation from our risk management consultants, and our IT team fully supported it because of the volume of targeted scam emails to city employees.”

This is another inadequate, unacceptable response. This information should be publicly available; these are public employees. If contact information was a security concern, it alone could have been easily removed. Virtually every municipality makes staffing information available. It would appear that efforts are being made to suppress this information from the public.

Finally, because the staff information was no longer available, I requested several items from the HR department on April 2. The requests were rather complex, and I was told that they would be treated as a public records request. Fair enough. So on April 5, I modified my request to read exactly thus:

“1. A list of positions with their corresponding salaries and benefits from FY 2017. Names would be helpful, but are not necessary.

2. A list of current employees and their positions. I do not need any personal or contact information, just names and positions.”

These are basic reports that any HR department in the world should be able to produce within a few minutes. There is no research necessary. Yet, as of April 11, a full business week later, I had not received any response to my modified request, nor my original request. I cannot help but wonder why my request has not been fulfilled, or even addressed as a public records request. The implication again is that they do not want this basic public information to be released. I want to know why, or if there is another justifiable explanation.

It is not unreasonable to expect full transparency, accountability and responsiveness from our city government. In fact, it should be demanded by every taxpayer.

I hope that in the future, the city will make all public information easily available to the taxpayers so that they do not have to make special requests as I have, sometimes only to have them unfulfilled.

Dean Silver lives in Ashland.