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Transparency seems so elusive in Belton

By Allen Edmonds

You remember how, as kids, we used to have a sixth sense for what was “just enough” to get by when it came to irritating chores?

And as parents later, we also grew an innate sense for when “just enough” was being done to mollify us, right?

And we also know how fast it gets old.

Well, the same goes for our relationship with government.

“Transparency” is a cool $5 word that elected and appointed officials like to throw around to show how responsive and sensitive they are to the needs of those that put them in their positions.

But reality is often quite different from the sales pitch. And Belton seems to be the poster child for “just enough,” these days.

Over the past couple of months, there have been two city boards that have met to discuss topic and settle issues that city leaders would – for various reasons – prefer not to have debated under the glare of a public spotlight.

The Code Enforcement Advisory Committee met twice recently to discuss the proposed rental inspection plan (which comes up for final approval at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting).

While notices of those meetings apparently were posted at City Hall and on the subpage of that committee on the City’s website, which fulfills the “just enough” requirement of state law, emails notifying those that had signed up for city notifications weren’t sent, nor was the typical  “calendar” notice posted on the City’s home page.

As a result, despite promises that the committee would work with the Cass County Landlord’s Association on crafting the proposed ordinance, the cooperation didn’t happen.

Then even more recently, the Public Safety Sales Tax Oversight Committee, which citizens were promised if they would just please vote for the half-cent tax last November, finally met for the first time – six months after the city began collecting revenue.

Again, “just enough” was done to satisfy state law in notifying the public. If you happened to pop into City Hall on Main Street during the 48 hours prior to the group’s meeting, or if you happened to land on that committee’s subpage on the right day.

Sure, now that I’ve complained, City Clerk Andrea Cunningham has promised to put me on the required “lists” to make sure I’m notified the next time these two committees meet.

But it hasn’t been that long since former City Clerk Patti Ledford, a 30-plus year veteran that always made sure far more than “just enough” was done to demonstrate transparency, was forced out.

Forgive me for having established an expectation that is now clearly beyond reasonable.

And the typical crocodile tears of Mayor Jeff Davis (who was so sorry to see that happen) won’t change it. Cunningham was likely only following policy set by City Manager Alexa Barton, but it’s a policy clearly meant to avoid public scrutiny, and it’s gotten old fast.

Then, this week, we have another example at the police department, when a body was found inside a car at a car wash on North Scott.

Hundreds of cars passed the scene, where it was rather obvious after many hours what had occurred – even to those that did not actually see what police saw when they arrived.

And as the hours passed, with not a word to the public by police administration, discussion on Facebook obviously trended towards speculation that another homicide had occurred just down the street from one earlier this fall.

One which took police administration no less than 12 hours to notify the public of.

Now it turns out that this week’s incident was not suspicious in nature, but I was less than amused with the defensive nature of the department’s public information officer, who simply could not seem to understand why the “rumor mill” had gotten so worked up. Moreover, he said he had no intention of issuing a press release every time the department worked an unattended death.

Hopefully, I was able to explain, though in a less than patient manner, why the public had every right to be concerned with what was being seen that day, and how different it was than the vast majority of unattended deaths that occur in someone’s private bedroom.

It gets old fighting these battles with this department’s upper levels, while at the same time observing the excellent work done on the streets by a tremendous group of officers and detectives. And yes, that does mean the brass does part of its job extremely well, I realize.

And I also realize that the expectation of proactivity in the area of public communication has only come about since the county’s Emergency Services Board moved to encrypt radio traffic several years ago.

Before then, it was my responsibility as a journalist to hear what was going on in our communities, contact the department for information or go to the scene myself.

Since we’re now locked out of that capability, we rely on law enforcement to understand what the public should know, and three of the four agencies I work with locally do an excellent job of just that.

One does not, and this wasn’t an isolated example of that. So, next time present leadership at Belton City Hall wants to talk about “transparency,” ask when we’re going to see something beyond the legal minimum.


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