The week before Christmas, on Dec. 20, the city of Missoula informed City Council that it had made a $3 million error in its accounting of large capital purchases. Although the city hadn’t lost any money, exactly, it had been sending reimbursements for certain purchases to the wrong funds. As a result, Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell and Finance Director Leigh Griffing thought we had more emergency money than we actually do. The city believed it was near its goal of accumulating cash reserves amounting to 7 percent of the general fund, or about $4.2 million. Actually, it has only put away about $600,000.
The accounting term for such practices is “screwing the pooch.” The pooch was not found lying in bed with a cigarette on Dec. 20, though. According to the Indy’s Derek Brouwer, Bickell and Griffing told Mayor Engen about the mistake on Nov. 6, right before Election Day. Engen then sat on this fact of municipal government for six weeks, until after he had won and an accounting fix was in place.
This approach to information management has plagued the city before. In November of 2016, Communications Director Ginny Merriam told reporters that the mayor would be gone several weeks for undisclosed medical reasons. Asked when he would return, she told Missoulian reporter Peter Friesen, “We don’t know. You never know.” It turns out sometimes you do know, though, because the mayor had gone to a 28-day inpatient treatment for alcohol addiction. After he came back, he told us all about it in an open letter that also announced his bid for re-election.
These incidents suggest an alarming trend in city government. Every municipality makes mistakes. It’s inevitable. Given the facts, though, I think the Engen administration should admit it has a problem. The people of Missoula deserve a government that can keep a secret for more than six weeks.
As a PR professional and heir to one half of a vast dictionary fortune, Merriam should know better. The primary task of any communications director is to keep people from finding out about the city’s mistakes. The good people of Missoula don’t have time to think about how much money their city has or why the mayor they elected has been replaced by someone else. The whole point of having a government is to not worry about that stuff.
I call this ideal state of city management Schrödinger’s Town, after the physicist Erwin Schrödinger and his famous thought experiment. Essentially, Schrödinger put a cat in a box with a vial of poison gas, which he then connected to a monitor that would detect the state of a single atom. If the atom decayed, the cat would die; if it remained intact, the cat would live. Schrödinger did not tell the owner of the cat about his experiment until afterward, when the cat was basically fine—thereby establishing the principle of quantum physics that what you don’t know can’t hurt you.
Why cannot our city government abide by this principle? I don’t want to know that Missoula is one unusually snowy winter away from going broke, or that our mayor was 28 days away from spending the rest of his life either governing our city or vomiting into our mailboxes. The principle of Schrödinger’s Town dictates that we must never find out about these brushes with disaster, lest our elected leaders be remembered as Schrödinger was: a nerd who was mean to cats.
By demonstrating once again that they cannot keep a secret for more than six weeks, Merriam and the Engen administration have made it clear that municipal government needs more oversight. I propose a bipartisan commission to review the city’s books each month, document any errors and then put everyone who has seen these documents in a locked box containing a single atom and a vial of gas. Once the errors have been resolved, Merriam can call a press conference and hand out free cats. Reporters with allergies will be given raccoons.
Will this plan be expensive? Once you factor in rabies vaccinations, yes, absolutely. But it’s worth it to stop hearing about these mistakes and crises. When I’m flying on a plane, I don’t want the pilots to leave the intercom on the whole time, so that I hear about every engine problem and who’s been drinking. I just want to lie back and enjoy the ride. Likewise with Missoula: I don’t need to know that we are “running out of money” or who is “actually in charge” while the mayor is “in rehab.” I just want to pay taxes and live in peace.
I believe that Schrödinger’s Town is within our reach, but our elected officials must do better. Must we open our newspapers every morning during the remaining months that newspapers continue to exist and learn about some new, past screw-up? We deserve leaders who can keep a secret forever, or at least make it to Christmas without letting the cat out of the bag.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.