Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Earning the Public’s Trust

In my April 4 post,
Hey! That’s Our Money, I pointed out that the most recent audit of the operations of Richmond Public Schools has had a devastating effect on public support for our public schools. A letter to the editor from Richmonder Dorothy T. Edwards published in yesterday’s Times Dispatch supports my conclusion. Ms. Edwards’ letter indicates that she has lost all trust in our public officials to root out the “waste, inefficiency and nepotism” that plague the city’s operations. (Although Ms. Edwards’ letter specifically addresses the school audit, it is clear from her letter that it is mismanagement throughout city operations, not just in the schools, that concerns her.) To avoid you having to hit on any links, I will reprint Ms. Edwards’ letter in its entirety.

Editor, Times-Dispatch:
Your recent editorial about the Richmond school audit calls it "Obscene." What I would call the waste, inefficiency, and nepotism in the school system is "criminal."
I find it hard to believe that the city hasn't found some way to get rid of auditor Umesh Dalal. He seems to have an amazing amount of courage to run these audits and publish the truth of the corruption in our city and our school system. As a taxpayer, I thank him and hope he keeps up the good work.
Not that these major transgressions against the taxpaying citizens of Richmond, and especially the children, will get corrected -- because I don't believe they will. School Board Chairman George Braxton can assure us all he wants that he will hold the school administration accountable. In all the years I have lived in Richmond, I have heard so many promises, so many lies from our elected officials that I do not believe them anymore.
We have almost reached the point that we need a taxpayers' revolt. Perhaps if we withheld our tax payments like Mayor Doug Wilder withheld funds to the School Board, we might get somebody's attention at City Hall. Short of a revolt, I don't know what else we citizens can do until next Election Day.
I wish I could believe that just by changing officials we could clean up Richmond, but unfortunately, I don't know if there are any honest people left who would want to run this beautiful city by the James. The waste, inefficiency, and nepotism go very deep and will take a Herculean effort to dig out by the roots.
Dorothy T. Edwards. Richmond.

I wish I could tell you that Ms. Edwards’ letter was an anomaly, but I can’t. I think that her views are shared by far too many people in this city. More than three and a half years after we elected a mayor who pledged to clean up the corruption in city government, many city residents think that it’s still business as usual in River City.

Ms. Edwards says she has heard too many promises and just doesn’t believe public officials any more. That Ms. Edwards has come to this view is tragic. In our republic, public officials can only govern if they have the trust of the electorate. If people in this city feel that they can’t trust their elected and appointed officials, Richmond is in worse trouble than I thought.

Dear reader, how do our elected and appointed officials gain back the trust of our citizens? It seems clear from Ms. Edwards’ letter that words alone are not enough. I think that our officials must act (and do so quickly) to assure Richmond taxpayers that their money is being used lawfully and efficiently. Our officials must demand accountability from all public employees including themselves. Just as Richmond Public Schools has a zero-tolerance policy with respect to certain misbehavior by students, our city government (including the schools) must have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of public trust. And this policy must apply to all public employees from the mayor on down.

In the future, we cannot tolerate a situation in which different standards are applied to the same behavior. For example, this week Mayor Wilder accepted the resignation of Benjamin Johnson, Richmond’s director of emergency management. Mr. Johnson resigned after a city audit revealed that he was receiving both a $500 per month car allowance and the use of a city owned vehicle. Under city ordinances, Johnson was entitled to one of these perks, not both. City Auditor Umesh Dalal had called for disciplinary action against Mr. Johnson for accepting both perks. It is unfortunate that the city lost the services of Mr. Johnson. However, when it comes to accountability we must have a zero-tolerance policy.

Or do we? It appears that our beloved mayor was also receiving both a monthly car allowance of $700 and the use of a city-owned car since 2005. Under city ordinances, the mayor was entitled to only one of these perks. When confronted with this fact, Mr. Wilder said that he was unaware that he had been receiving both perks. Mr. Wilder indicated his intent to reimburse the city for the car allowance he had been improperly receiving for three years. Mr. Wilder has not submitted his resignation.

Ms. Edwards might ask, “Maven, why were Mr. Johnson and Mayor Wilder subject to two different standards? Mr. Johnson lost his job, but the mayor only had to pay back the money he wrongly accepted.”

Dear reader, I was prepared to give Ms. Edwards one of my standard satiric answers. However, this situation simply is not funny. So instead I will address the last paragraph in Ms. Edwards’ letter.

Ms. Edwards, I do believe that there are honest people around who are willing to take on the responsibility of leading our fair city. Further, I don’t think that ridding this city of waste, inefficiency and nepotism is a task that only Hercules could perform. All we need are officials who demand accountability.

As for RPS, we need nine school board members who will inform the next school superintendent that s/he will be held strictly accountable for every penny of public money entrusted to the schools. Then we need a superintendent that informs all school system employees that they will be held strictly accountable for every cent of public money they administer.

On the City Hall side, we need nine council persons who will inform the next mayor that s/he will be held strictly accountable for every penny of public money appropriated to run the city government. We need a mayor who will inform his/her staff and all city employees that they will be held strictly accountable for every cent of public money they administer.

Our policy must be one of zero tolerance. If you misuse public funds you will be required to pay them back and you will lose your job. It’s as simple as that. We cannot accept as an excuse, “I didn’t know.” As a public official it is your job to know.

Hopefully, through their actions our city leaders can gain back Ms. Edwards’ trust. Ms. Edwards and all the taxpayers of River City are entitled to leaders who will treat their public trust seriously. They are entitled to know that every penny they pay to the city in taxes will be spent honestly and efficiently.

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