Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop has requested that his predecessor and her supporters end what he describes as efforts to undermine his administration.
In a statement read during Tuesday night’s Columbus City Council meeting, Lienhoop referred to a petition signed by former Mayor Kristen Brown and a dozen of her supporters objecting to the city’s proposed 2017 budget, along with repeated public records requests and complaints about his administration.
Lienhoop read the one-page statement detailing his administration’s efforts since January that he said have included re-establishing trust among city employees and reaching out to partners at the state and federal levels. He also said the city welcomes and responds to questions about their government, calling it “the right thing to do.”
“The public’s right to know is inviolate, and we have demonstrated our belief this is so by providing unparalleled access by the media to elected officials, department heads and other city professionals,” Lienhoop said. “However, for the past 10 months or so, we’ve been witness to a number of actions by our former mayor, Kristen Brown, and her supporters that abuse these public access processes.”
Brown, however, described Lienhoop’s criticism as a personal attack on her, calling his action shameful.
Lienhoop referred to the budget petition filed Oct. 11 as the latest abuse of the process by Brown and her supporters, who have filed at least 24 public-information requests with the city while also filing seven complaints with the Indiana Public Access Counselor.
When information is requested, it is standard policy for the city to require that the requests be made in writing, Lienhoop said.
“The lion’s share have come from Kristen Brown, David Jones and Ken Fudge,” he said.
In addition, Lienhoop said Brown backers have made numerous phone calls, along with email requests to city employees, outside professionals and former employees. He alleged that Brown attempted to get the federal government to investigate the city’s Rocky Ford Road project, which began during her administration.
Lienhoop also said the city has responded to each document request and complaint and will continue doing so. However, he described some of the requests as “downright silly.”
“Earlier this year, one of the Board of Works members passed me a note during a public meeting informing me that she was leaving to attend another meeting and would not return,” Lienhoop said. “The next day, we received a public information request asking for a copy of the note.”
Cost of fulfilling requests
Lienhoop said that looking into the frequent requests has become costly.
“The cost to those who complain and object is next to zero,” Lienhoop said. “The cumulative cost to our city to respond to these is in the thousands of dollars.”
In a follow-up interview Wednesday, Lienhoop said the primary cost is associated with time required to collect, investigate and analyze requested materials, either through a paper search or electronic documents.
In some instances, the incurred cost is in actual overtime paid to city employees.
The research work requires involvement by people with an understanding of the material, who are often among higher-paid employees, the mayor said.
On other matters, it requires paying a consultant an hourly rate to become involved.
“Expectations are that we be perfect in our response,” Lienhoop said.
That means making a thorough search, such as of all emails between specific dates, to assure that the material provided satisfies the request, and make sure that information not permitted to be released is excluded, such as personal or health information about employees.
“This latest objection to the budget was so without merit that it warranted some form of a response, when added to everything else that had gone on before,” Lienhoop said.
Brown, who attended Tuesday night’s meeting, called the statement Lienhoop read during the meeting shameful and disrespectful and demanded an apology. She was also critical of the city’s response to the petition on the budget, saying some of the city’s responses were misleading.
Brown lost the mayor’s seat to Lienhoop in the 2015 Republican primary by a nearly two-to-one margin. After the votes were totaled, Brown attributed her loss to negative campaigning by Lienhoop.
However, in Lienhoop’s statement, he said voters opted for new mayor who would set a different tone from Brown’s four-year administration.
“Transparency, openness, the public’s right to know or even good government is not the issue here. These (complaints) come from a small group led by a former mayor who can’t seem to get beyond having lost an election. As much as anything, that election was about moving on. The voters expressed a desire, clearly and convincingly, that they wished our city to move beyond the acrimony and contention that had existed during her time in office. That we have endeavored to do. It is time now for her and her group to do so, also.”
After Lienhoop completed reading the statement, Brown stood up and addressed Lienhoop directly.
“That was shameful,” she said. “That was absolutely out of line.”
Brown did not receive the apology she requested and called Lienhoop “irresponsible, disrespectful and rude.”
Reached by phone Wednesday, Brown said she felt the petition challenging the budget was respectful, and felt that individuals addressing the council during Tuesday’s meeting were “personally attacked for addressing their government.”
Brown said she plans on continuing to speak to council members and the administration about issues she feels are important.
“I don’t have any political agenda,” Brown said. “I’ve never made any excuses for my election loss. It was the will of the people.”
Here is a transcript of a statement made during Tuesday’s Columbus City Council meeting by Mayor Jim Lienhoop:
You know, Columbus is a wonderful community with a very bright future. We’ve been able to accomplish much since taking office the first of this year. We are bringing the State Street project forward, we are re-building a section of Rocky Ford Road, and we are addressing the impending railroad changes, our riverfront and our economic development challenges.
We are pursuing more effective responses to the mental health and substance abuse issues that have enveloped our community. Most importantly, in my view, we have re-established trust among city employees, we have re-established relationships with nearby communities and we have reached out to our partners in the state and federal governments, all with some level of success.
We have also placed a heavy emphasis on how we govern. We show up for meetings, we participate in community events, we are approachable and we are welcoming to those who wish to question their city’s government. We do this because it is the right thing to do.
Indiana has a history of citizen participation in government, and this is enshrined in statues relating to public access for documents and meetings. The public’s right to know is inviolate and we have demonstrated our belief this is so by providing unparalleled access by the media to elected officials, department heads and other city professionals.
However, for the past 10 months or so, we’ve been witness to a number of actions by our former mayor, Kristen Brown, and her supporters that abuse these public access processes. Tonight’s Objection Petition is simply the latest. She and her supporters have filed at least 24 Public Information Requests. They have filed seven complaints with the Indiana Public Access Counselor. They have made numerous phone calls and submitted even more email requests to city employees, outside professionals and former employees. Former Mayor Brown has even tried to get the federal government to investigate our Rocky Ford Road project, an effort which began during her administration.
We have responded fully to each document request and complaint and will continue to do so. And to date, we’ve been sustained every step of the way. My purpose in mentioning all this tonight is simply to provide our citizens with some insight into their cost. Some of their requests are downright silly and easily handled. Earlier this year, one of the Board of Works members passed me a note during a public meeting informing me that she was leaving to attend another meeting and would not return. The next day, we received a Public Information Request asking for a copy of the note.
But most of these requests and complaints are not so easily responded to. Most require a search of paper and/or electronic files, followed by reviews to determine whether the search was thorough enough and whether information that is not allowed to be released was excluded. (Think employee or HIPPA records).
The cost to those who complain and object is next to zero. The cumulative cost to our city to respond to these is in the thousands of dollars.
And for what purpose? To find a foot fault? Transparency, openness, the public’s right to know or even good government is not the issue here. These come from a small group led by a former mayor who can’t seem to get beyond having lost an election. As much as anything, that election was about moving on. The voters expressed a desire, clearly and convincingly, that they wished our city to move beyond the acrimony and contention that had existed during her time in office. That we have endeavored to do.
It is time now for her and her group to do so, also.