Responsive and Transparent Government
You hear through the grapevine that the city is working on the area where your business is located, spent taxpayer dollars on a piece of new equipment, or created a new committee with a paying position and you want some answers. You go to the official city government website and cannot easily find information about the project. Next, you try to find out who to contact, but that information also is not readily available or it’s confusing who is ultimately responsible for providing leadership and documents for the average citizen. So, you call City Hall and, as helpful as they are, you are still left scratching your head wondering how and why your tax dollars were spent and when it’s going to happen.
Who was involved with the bidding process, what government committee or commission made the decision, did local vendors see the RFP, and, if not, why? How did the members of the decision-making group get appointed to their position, what is their relationship with elected officials, and are there conflicts of interest? When going to the ballot box, you did your best to vet the electoral candidates to ensure you got public officials into office who are honest, have integrity and will work for the best interests of the community, but the secrecy and inner workings of Tullahoma’s government arms and the difficulties in finding information online through a digital portal creates a feeling of mistrust, as do the answers you’ve gotten when showing up in person at City Hall or connecting through a phone call.
A lack of open access to information creates an environment where there is the potential for a lack of accountability and abuse of power. Even if intentions are true, when information about how our city operates is not forthcoming, it causes the businesses and residents of Tullahoma to be skeptical that the hundreds of decisions we make are in the best interest of serving the general public equally while fighting for the best price. All of our elected officials and city staff should be ever mindful of the fact that the money they are spending comes directly from residents and businesses through tax dollars and that the government exists solely to serve the public while constantly evaluating whether that money is being spent wisely.
The more open, accessible, and transparent our Board of Mayor and Alderman and city staff can be, the more likely we are to earn and retain the trust of residents and businesses in Tullahoma. All elected officials and staff should always be aware that the city government exists to operate the community and that the best interest of society should lead every decision being made.
Steps should be taken to make policies, procedures and actual decisions by the city’s designated decision-makers easily accessible in a digital format. Ensuring this, while patiently building the staff capacity and knowledge to keep this information up to date, ensures the public feels they can hold the city accountable and keeps our government responsible and efficient. Codes-enforcement rules, obscure requirements, board meeting minutes, council meeting minutes, financial documents, budgets and annual reports should all be easily accessible for the public, and we should rededicate our city to assisting the community in residents’ quests for knowledge about these things.
As your alderman, I created a website, BerryCares.com, to give the public access to board agendas and documents so that you have the ability to participate in decisions and discussions. Providing information on upcoming issues has opened up a corridor for communication that has allowed me to make decisions based on the needs of our community versus what I previously might have thought was best.
Communication is a two-way street. Our city government needs to be perceived as honest and transparent, but the community has responsibilities to ensure that city staff don’t operate in an informational black hole, as well. I’ve heard and seen for myself how hard it is to make big decisions without feedback from our citizens, and part of that is a lack of engagement from those I’m attempting to serve, which circles back around to the need for making information easily accessible on the Internet. Many other department heads, other elected officials and staffers have told me the same thing. The residents and businesses of Tullahoma have an obligation to be informed and engaged so they can talk to their elected officials and the city government.
As mayor, I will continue to ensure that you have access to all of the information you need to hold your local government accountable for how taxpayer money is spent, and I will continue to learn and propose new ways to receive feedback directly from the people who live here. I will also work to set a new standard of responsiveness to how all of us interface with Tullahoma which, after all, is home.