Crestwood citizens question intent of city-advertised meetings on tax increase

‘Legal staff’ OK’d information in newsletter, mayor says

By BURKE WASSON

Some Crestwood residents have questioned the intent of a series of city-advertised town-hall meetings on a proposed six-year, 35-cent tax-rate increase on the Aug. 5 ballot.

While the city’s Crestwood Connections newsletter advertised the meetings as “Prop 1 information town hall meetings,” the presentations at such meetings have been given by a campaign committee of Crestwood citizens in favor of the tax-rate increase.

The group Crestwood Residents for Prop 1 paid $160 to the city for the use of the Crestwood Government Center and the Community Center at Whitecliff Park as sites for the four town-hall meetings this month. Besides publishing the meetings in the newsletter, city officials also authorized the use of reverse 911 telephone calls to residents on July 12 to inform them of the meetings. While three meetings already have taken place, the last was set at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 30, at the Community Center in Whitecliff Park.

City Administrator Jim Eckrich said it is common practice for the city to use its dispatching service for reverse 911 calls to advertise town-hall meetings.

“Any time in the past the city’s had a town-hall meeting, the reverse 911s have been sent out,” he said. “They were sent out in this case. These meetings are ward town-hall meetings where the citizens for Prop 1 group is giving a presentation. That group is paying for the use of the room based upon the use of the city’s equipment to try to avoid the appearance of the city supporting the tax. So the reverse 911 was sent out when these were advertised in the newsletter as town-hall meetings.”

But some residents question the propriety of the city using public resources to promote meetings presented by a group with a bias in favor of the tax increase.

“That doesn’t strike me as a town-hall meeting,” former Ward 2 Alderman Tim Trueblood said during the July 22 town-hall meeting. “That’s not the same thing. I question strongly the legality of having that published in the Crestwood Connections at my tax-dollar expense to have a pro anything or a negative anything published on what’s supposed to be a neutral position in a government publication.”

Mayor Roy Robinson told Trueblood that City Attorney Rob Golterman approved of the advertisement in the Crestwood Connections and said “everything is approved by the legal staff before it goes out.”

Besides listing the dates and sites of each of the four town-hall meetings, the newsletter urged residents to “please attend the Town Hall meetings held in July so that you can obtain all the facts and have your questions answered. We need your help to bring our city back.”

But Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Miguel pointed out to Crestwood Residents for Prop 1 member Terry Freeman, who conducted presentations at the town-hall meetings, that the group was presenting an incomplete picture of the city’s finances.

The group’s financial presentation on July 22 focused on one of the city’s three funds. Freeman’s presentation highlighted sections of the city’s 2007 audit regarding the general fund, but offered no information from the audit on the capital-improvement fund or park and stormwater fund.

Executive Secretary Helen Ingold told those present July 22 that the information presented at each meeting was provided by Freeman and not city officials.

“This gentleman, Mr. Freeman, who I believe is a part of the group, not only contacted us, but provided every one of us and every one of the aldermen with the information he would be presenting this evening,” Ingold said. “That was my understanding of the process.”

Freeman emphasized at the July 22 meeting that while residents can vote how they wish, those present “will hear a bias” from his group.

“The point is to provide, in our view, a fact-based background that really better enables an informed voting decision,” Freeman said. “… You’re going to vote how you’re going to vote. This is about giving you another set of facts that enables you to do that. The city can provide information with respect to what is on the ballot, but they really can’t politick for it. The board put the vote to us as the people, but the employees can’t politick for it on their time and whatnot. And we believe strongly enough in the issue to do it ourselves to pay the rent, to pay the materials, et cetera.

“So you will hear a bias and you understand that there’s a bias. I’m someone who’s standing in front of you who isn’t bias free. But the point is we want you to be better informed to enable whatever your vote is.”

Crestwood Residents For Prop 1 Chairwoman Char Braun said the meetings were scheduled to offer another avenue besides Board of Aldermen meetings for residents to learn more about the ballot proposal.

“It’s not about right or wrong, win or lose,” Braun said. “It’s not about that. There are people here that don’t come to board meetings. I see most of the people in this room that don’t come. This might be the only way they get information. They can’t go online maybe. Maybe they don’t get the newsletters. I don’t know. We’re trying to get people information. They are deciding for themselves.”

As for the issue of whether the city maintained an unbiased position by publishing the group-conducted meeting dates in the city newsletter and advertising them through reverse 911 telephone calls, Robinson contended that “it was neutral.”

“Is this meeting neutral?” Trueblood asked.

“This meeting is neutral,” Robinson said.

“Well, it’s not a town-hall meeting,” Trueblood said.

“Well, it is not a town-hall meeting, but we have nothing to do with it,” Robinson said. “I’m sitting here because I’m a citizen of the community.”

“What does that (newsletter) say?” Trueblood said. “It says town-hall meeting.”

“Whatever it says, it was reviewed by legal and it’s perfectly legal to put in that information,” Robinson said. “We didn’t say yea or nay or what we want.”

“Is that legal?” Trueblood said. “Did our attorney approve of this?”

“You betcha,” Robinson said. “Everything is approved by the legal staff before it goes out.”

“Well, if somebody from let’s say Mothers Against Drunk Driving wanted to have a meeting and asked if it would be published in the Crestwood Connections for the residents, would you do that?” Civil Service Board member Martha Duchild asked.

“Certainly we would,” Robinson said.

“Then any other group that wants to advertise meetings in Crestwood could?” she asked.

“If it’s informational about the meetings, you bet,” Robinson said.

“Just buy the room and supply the materials,” Freeman said.