No word sums up the tension between news organizations’ responsibilities as civic watchdogs and their obligations as for-profit businesses like the word “still.” When you see “still” in a headline, you know you’re reading about an issue that is too important to forget, but too boring to drive the news cycle. City councilmember Jesse Ramos caught a big still last week when NBC Montana ran a web article headlined “Missoula councilman still in battle with the city over legal fee documents.”
The documents in question are bills for attorney fees related to the city’s acquisition of Mountain Water. You may remember the innocent year 2014, when the city estimated that these fees would come to about $400,000. They hit $6 million in 2016. Although the total bill for legal costs related to the acquisition is not publicly known, it’s at least 15 times what Mayor Engen told us it would be.
Where did all that money go? What unexpected events multiplied our expenses by such a large factor? Other members of City Council have seen the records that presumably answer these questions, but Ramos has not. His fellow councilmembers have offered to show them to him, but only if he signs a non-disclosure agreement. It turns out that our elected representatives are allowed to know how the city spent $6 million, but only if they promise not to tell us.
So far, Ramos has refused to make that promise. He continues to demand access to the documents, however, arguing that voters have a right to know. This persistence seems to have frustrated other members of the council. NBC Montana reports that Bryan von Lossberg complained in a meeting that he and the rest of the council had already been over the legal fees “60 times.”
If the other members of City Council have reviewed the billing documents so many times that the cost overrun is a settled issue, then they should have no problem explaining how it happened. If they really want Ramos to shut up about it, they could even release a detailed but readable report. Somewhere between dumping all the documents on the internet and refusing to tell us anything, there must be an option that acknowledges the public’s right to know.
As it is, City Council is invoking a right even more powerful: the public’s right to not be bothered. The money is spent. We got the water company. Can’t we all just move on to installing elevators in some of the larger potholes or whatever?
“Somewhere between dumping all the documents on the internet and refusing to tell us anything, there must be an option that acknowledges the public’s right to know.”
Recent events in my personal life have made me sympathetic to this strategy. I don’t want to go into all the details but, owing to some recent cost overruns of my own, I’m in Dutch with the wife. On Sunday morning, she sent me to the store to buy groceries for the week — something that usually costs about $150. After I contributed my share and she provided the remaining $143.65, I set off with a cheerful wave, saying I would be back in a couple of hours.
I spent $2,250 and came home Monday afternoon. I don’t want to talk about what happened, but the important thing is that it’s not a big deal. In fact, several other people know how I spent the money, and they all agree it was appropriate. Rest assured that there’s a perfectly good explanation you don’t need to know. I would also be happy to explain where I slept Sunday night, even though the details are really boring, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.
This non-scandal comes at a bad time for me. My wife has become irrationally concerned with fiscal issues, owing to some unforeseen expenses at our house. I recently hired some contractors who agreed to replace all the windows for $6,000. When we got the bill, though, unexpected overruns meant the project actually cost $90,000. I talked to some other people at the window company, and they assured me it was actually fine, but my wife continues to pester me for some sort of “explanation.”
Sorry if I sound kind of testy. It’s just that these issues are totally settled at this point, because we’ve been over them like 60 times. I originally estimated we’d only have to talk about them four times, but you know how these things go.
Overruns happen, especially when you commit to doing something no matter how much it costs and have no way to refuse payment at the end. If councilmember Ramos is so curious about how Missoula incurred such a large legal bill for Mountain Water, he should just sign the non-disclosure agreement and join the ranks of people who are sworn to secrecy regarding its perfectly reasonable explanation. Until then, he must uphold the sacred agreement that makes municipal government possible: The city does whatever, and the rest of us shut up and pay for it.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.