December 6, 2014
Access to documents does not mean access to information, or so says the County Manager, Karen Degges. She has done everything possible to keep not only the public, but also the commissioners from knowing many things. She harasses and bullies the employees under her to keep them quiet with threats of their job if they don’t keep quiet, say what she tells them to say, or do things even though the employee knows these things are wrong or untruthful.
Several times Ms. Degges or her staff has responded to open records requests that “they” (she and the staff she directs) don’t have to give any information or answer questions; all they have to do is provide a document if Ms. Degges says it is available.
This week I requested the number of building permits that had been issued for new houses in 2014 in Jasper County. I have no idea if there is a document for this because everything that has been requested from P&Z or Code Enforcement over the past 18 months has been met with answers such as there is no document, there is no log, there is no list, there is no citation, etc.
After staff (Ms. Braley) provided me with the number of permits yesterday, Karen Degges sent an email last night informing me to “please be advised that the Open Records Act is a document access statute. It does not cover, regulate or require any government entity to answer questions (per the Attorney General’s web-site).” And additionally, she informed me that I should not send a copy of my request to the commissioners! I have realized that if Ms. Degges isn’t in total control of all information in this county, then she isn’t content.
Open Government to Karen Degges is about hiding as much as possible; it is about only producing what she thinks should be let out to the public. (This is why there was never any detailed budget discussion during the past budget process in Jasper County.) Here is an article from the Banks News Today which shows you Ms. Degges acted the same way in Baldwin, GA when she was City Administrator.
(Highlighting is TWG’s)
Wednesday, June 15. 2011
The Baldwin City Council will meet Thursday at 5:30 p.m. to again discuss the town’s 2012 budget, although officials had been pressured by town finance director Karen Degges to keep the budget process secret.
Under the current draft budget, the city is looking to increase spending by 8.3 percent, a move that would likely force a tax hike. Among the increased spending is more money for administrative positions, including a city administrator at $60,000 per year, a part-time administrative assistant and taking a part-time finance analyst to full-time.
But Baldwin’s budget process so far has been confused by Degges efforts to keep both the public and media at bay. The council held a highly unusual called meeting at 7 a.m. last Saturday morning to discuss the budget. The timing was apparently a move to keep the discussions secret.
A Banks County News reporter showed up and was met with a hostile reception by Degges. The finance director refused to give the reporter copies of the proposed budget, saying it was secret, a clear violation of state law. The reporter eventually got a copy of an overview sheet, but Degges waited until after the meeting to hand out details to council members to avoid giving the media a copy.
Monday, Degges sent an email to the council complaining about the media showing up Saturday.
“Saturday’s meeting was more challenging than I had hoped it would be, with the unexpected attendance by the media (after they said they would not be there at last Thursday’s work session,)” Degges wrote.
Degges also pushed the council to cancel Thursday’s meeting to allow her to meet in small groups with council members in an effort to avoid having to have a public budget meeting.
“It’s going to be very difficult to have another public meeting…. and go into the level of detail that will be needed to examine potential budget cuts and or tax increases….,” Degges wrote in her Monday email. “It will be inflammatory enough in the paper to have her print (as I am expecting) that staff has asked for an additional $150,000 in funding, which will require a 2.5 tax mil increase.
But after Banks County News co-publisher Mike Buffington challenged Degges on the efforts to discuss the city budget in secret, the city decided to go ahead with its 5:30 p.m. meeting Thursday.
“The City of Baldwin’s finances don’t belong to the city government, they belong to the citizens of Baldwin,” Buffington said. “For a public official to attempt to craft a town budget in secret and to refuse to release public documents is outrageous. Baldwin has a history of fiscal mismanagement and just two years ago, had a negative fund balance because of overspending. This kind of thing just compounds those problems.”
The council spent four hours Saturday talking about the budget proposed by Degges, minus any detailed information.
The total proposed for 2012 for the Enterprise Fund is $3.06 million in revenues and $2.31 million in expenditures. The enterprise fund includes wastewater treatment plant, sewer collection/Fats, Oil, Grease Inspection Service (FOGIS), water distribution and water treatment plant.
The total 2011 enterprise fund budget was $2.6 million in revenues and $1.99 million in expense. The proposed 2012 budget reflects a 17.5 percent increase in revenues and a 16.5 percent increase in expenditures for the enterprise fund.
The proposed General Fund account shows $1.54 million in projected revenues and $1.59 million in expenses for 2012. This figure reflects an increase of $14,019 in revenues and an increase of $139,734 in expenditures, making the total additional funds requested $125,715.
Following is the complete email written by Karen Degges showing her contempt for open government and open records (highlighting is TWG’s):
The email Degges sent to the city council members and the city attorney is as follows:
Email dated: Monday, June 13, 2011 11:38 AM
Good morning everyone,
Saturday’s meeting was one more challenging that I had hoped it would be, with the unexpected attendance by the media (after they said they would not be there at last Thursday’s work session). Clearly there is a huge amount of media interest in the activities of Baldwin, on an extremely detailed level that I have not seen with the other cities I’ve worked for. Unfortunately, the handouts I had prepared for you folks included detailed information about employee salaries, as I thought we were going to be in the position where we could have much more frank discussion about the budgets submitted by the department heads. I had hoped we would leave that meeting with a clear outline of what needed to be cut, or some clear direction from the council as to what staff should do to get the budget in presentation form. We could not get to that goal with the added distraction of having the press literally sitting right there on top of us looking at the notes being taken by the City Clerk and Council members, asking questions, and providing their input as to what we should be budgeting for. I am all for transparency in government, but not when it’s to the point where work is being impeded and the line between who is staff and who is media is being blurred. It took us four hours to get through the budget summary, which had no detailed information at all.
It is going to be very difficult to have another public meeting, which is scheduled for this Thursday at 5:30 at City Hall, and go into the level of detail that will be needed to examine potential budget cuts and/or tax increases to fund what has been requested. Sharon and I had some disagreement first thing Saturday when she asked for a complete set of handouts, which were draft working documents (and labeled so) for our internal use. Initially I refused to provide her with anything, but then she said she was going to ask the Mayor for a set of documents. Then I relented and gave her Robert’s copy of the 3 page departmental summary, and she advised she would be writing up any number we discussed in our meeting. That forced me to hang onto the other handouts. It will be inflammatory enough in the paper to have her print (as I am expecting) that staff has asked for an additional $150,000 in funding, which will require a 2.5 tax mil increase.
Normally all of this behind the scenes discussion of budget details, salaries and proposed budget cuts would be handled by staff (under the City Manager’s direction) prior to presenting the budget to the elected officials. The use of a budget committee of 3 elected officials was discussed but not implemented on Saturday. Since everyone indicated they want to be involved in the budget process (and it is your right to be as elected officials), I think some serious thought needs to be given as to whether or not we want to continue doing this level of detailed discussion and possible disagreement (about what and where to cut) in full view of the press. My primary concern is preserving some level of privacy for our employees, who do not want their pay detailed on the front page of the newspaper for all of their neighbors to see.
I will be putting together some numbers this afternoon on a few different scenarios for possible cost savings, and I would much prefer to meet with three of you Thursday morning, and the second three Thursday afternoon, and it be done as two staff meetings, than be forced to provide the press an abundance of sensitive information, including employee salaries, in a public meeting. Not to mention how much longer it will take to get through all this information in that type of meeting structure. If we proceed with the original plan, the hand-outs used will (I feel sure) be challenged again, and be again requested by the media. Even if those aren’t distributed, everything we say will be public record.
I do not want to take away from or diminish anyone’s participation, but to do this type of detailed budget work in front of the press is not going to be easy or pleasant. Please think this over and let me know if you still want to have the Special Called Meeting on Thursday, or handle this as two separate staff meetings. No matter what is decided, I will try to adjust the content of any handouts accordingly, and at least be more prepared for full publication of any documents.
If any of you have any questions about the material I gave you to take home, please give me a call or stop by and I will be happy to assist you.
As you can see from the article and from her own email, Karen Degges has absolutely no respect for the citizens, the media, or for open government. She will change documents and do whatever to keep everyone in the dark. She also keeps the BOC in the dark by refusing to answer questions or give information in public meetings; you can see this in the meetings if you attend them. Unfortunately, our BOC doesn’t seem to mind the secrecy because they are busy doing the same thing—going behind closed doors to discuss details of contracts, budgets, etc.
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