Commissioner Steve Brown’s grievances with the current direction of county government were again a major topic of discussion at the most recent county commission meeting, where Brown received no support from his fellow commissioners for proposals to limit the decision-making authority given to County Administrator Steve Rapson.
Brown recommended that all internal policy and procedure changes be brought before commission for an official vote, and also to reduce the county administrator’s spending limit from $200,000 to $50,000.
Brown frequently trumpeted the high level of transparency in county government while he was chairman for the last two years, consistently contrasting the environment under his chairmanship with what had come before under Herb Frady. Since he was replaced as chairman this year by Charles Oddo, Brown has called into question the transparency of the county government, saying in a letter to the editor that the Board of Commissioners is “heading down a path where oversight and accountability are being loosened to a dangerous level.”
Brown claimed at Thursday’s meeting that he’s been agitating about these problems behind the scenes for more than a year, while he was still chairman. He claimed he had been rebuffed in his efforts to make changes.
Brown’s version of what had been going on behind the scenes in the past couple of years was not supported by any other commissioner or by Rapson during the meeting. The statement he read for the record discussed other local governments where government officials that had previously been trusted were found to have committed fraud or malfeasance.
“People in governments are convicted of wrong-doing all the time. Accountability measures are an absolute necessity. It is one of the chief duties of the Board of Commissioners,” Brown said in his prepared statement.
In addition to questioning these two policies, Brown continued his criticism born from a previous meeting where he felt he was “silenced” because he was not permitted to present a powerpoint presentation that he had submitted the day of the meeting. That issue has continued to be a point of contention for Brown, though Chairman Oddo has said his only intention was to maintain an orderly practice of conducting meetings. This debate led to a discussion at the commission’s retreat in March where it was decided that commissioners will be expected to submit certain supporting documents by a deadline that is in line with what employees already have to comply with. Powerpoint presentations, in particular, will have to be submitted within this timeframe.
Brown said Rapson had kept his agenda items off of agendas by “backdoor polling,” meaning three commissioners “behind the scenes” had said to leave it off.
This claim was not supported by any of the other commissioners, and Rapson also denied it.
The two policies in question trace back to a commission retreat in April 2013. Rapson said Brown’s characterization of what happened at that retreat was off and also took exception to the suggestion that he and his staff were not trustworthy.
“There’s a little bit of implied shadiness going on that I don’t want just hanging out there,” Rapson said. “When this was presented on the April 25  meeting, the board unanimously approved it.”
Rapson was speaking specifically to the provision for changing or updating internal policies and procedures. He said those changes, when made, are discussed with the chairman, who may then suggest revisions, and taken to all county department heads for similar input.
“Not until then are the policies breathed into life,” Rapson said, also noting that he provides weekly updates to the commissioners which detail progress on such policies as they are being revised.
Several commissioners praised Rapson for his detailed weekly updates and for creating a policies and procedures manual that can be reviewed and is public record. Brown was vocal about getting a policies and procedures manual established for the county.
Commissioner Randy Ognio said he didn’t see any issue with the level of transparency.
“I think we hired an administrator and we give him the tools he needed to do his job, and that was to make changes in policies and procedures. There’s nothing to say we cannot review those policies and procedures. If there’s something we don’t like in them, make a change. If the citizen wants to see any of those, they’re open records. It’s not like we’re trying to hide something. We’re trying to make things more efficient,” Ognio said.
Chairman Oddo said he hadn’t perceived any issue of transparency nor heard of any problems in the two years Brown had been chairman. He also said Rapson had never taken sides on an issue and always sought input from all five commissioners.
“I’ve never seen him not ask all five of us our opinions. I don’t think you can do better than that. I’ve never seen him pick sides in any issue. He hasn’t always agreed with what we decided, but he goes along with it,” Oddo said.
Oddo also agreed that Brown was suggesting something shady was happening behind the scenes.
“There is a suggestion of impropriety, no matter how this was phrased. Nothing has changed from the previous years to this year. I’ve never felt there was any transparency issue because I’ve never asked for anything or seen anyone ask for anything that wasn’t provided immediately,” Oddo said.
On the matter of the county administrator’s spending limit, Brown also got no support for a reduction from $200,000 to $50,000. According to the actual policy, “The Chairman or County Administrator is authorized to sign properly procured contracts that are less than $200,000 and budgeted.”
This bone of contention for Brown was highlighted recently by the proposed Kenwood Park upgrades, which he said were entirely outside of the established master plan for the park and should have come to the commission individually for votes. Rapson said that would be a major departure from how business had been conducted as funds had already been budgeted for Kenwood Park, which he said was obvious direction from commission to develop reasonable plans for spending those funds.
Ognio again disagreed with Brown’s proposal, saying Rapson had been very thorough in updating the board in his weekly reports and pointing out that even projects that fall within the $200,000 spending limit are subject to “a lot of checks and balances,” as they have to go through various departments, a bid process, and come across the chairman’s desk to be signed.
“The amount of communication the administrator does with the board is amazing,” Ognio said.
Rapson also said Brown’s claim that the proposed upgrades at Kenwood didn’t fit the approved master plan had not been correct, on review.
“If you look at phase 2 [in the master plan] and the amenities we submitted, you will see every single one of those items was in phase 2.”
The proposed upgrades include a new pavilion or gazebo, added parking, expanded walking trails, a play area for small children, fitness stations, and possibly a new restroom facility.
Rapson also pushed back at the implication he can freely spend under the $200,000 limit without any oversight.
“There’s this underlying thread [in Brown’s comments] that somehow contracts aren’t being vetted or are being handled differently. That’s an extreme misinterpretation of what’s happening.”
Rapson went through the various checks and balances he is required to comply with for purchases over $500. He also noted the $200,000 spending limit is only applicable to projects that have already been budgeted.
Rapson also said that Brown’s statement that the two of them had been “butting heads” behind the scenes over issues of transparency was not accurate.
“When he talks about accountability and complaining a year and half, I simply didn’t see that,” Rapson said.
Oddo agreed that expenditures go through a few departments and ultimately come to his desk, where he reviews them, before signing any checks.
“If this is my first experience in government, which it is, I have a wonderful taste in my mouth for government,” Oddo said. “The county administrator has kept us in the loop on everything.”
Neither of Brown’s measures were approved. He voted against his own measure for reducing the spending limit, saying doing so would allow him to bring the matter back to the board at a later date.