COLUMBIA, 1/14/11 (Beat Byte) -- To a chief lieutenant who has done nothing but safeguard the public interest -- superintendent Bill Weitkemper -- City of Columbia public works director John Glascock sent this response to Weitkemper's request for sewer-related records:
"I am treating this request like a Sunshine request. The information you requested has been passed on to the
appropriate staff to review and respond to me as to the time and resources needed to comply. Once I have those numbers, I will let you know what the cost will be and you can decide if you are willing to pay for the information."
In those few words, which Weitkemper quotes in a Jan. 11 letter to the City Council, Glascock suggests an underhanded approach to City Hall transparency: Use the cost of the document dig to discourage the diggers, in this case, one of his very own employees.
Dogging the watchdog
If ever Columbia had a shining example of a government watchdog looking out for John and Jane Q. Public, it would be Bill Weitkemper, a superintendent in the city's public works department widely known as Columbia's top expert on all things sewer and wastewater.
So carefully has Weitkemper monitored the development of a new ordinance to correct expensive flaws in city sewer billing practices that he's sent over 100 emails to both this publication and the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Weitkemper's latest advisory -- addressed to Columbia's Mayor, City Council, and "users of the City of Columbia's wastewater system" -- reminds of the 2,000-page Obamacare plan, approved by Congress after no one had time to actually read the bill.
With the city's Sewer Task Force "given less than thirty minutes to review city staff's amended sewer ordinance at their Dec. 15, 2010 meeting, five of six Task Force members voted to recommend the amended ordinance to Council. What is the rush?" Weitkemper asks.
With the revised ordinance scheduled for Feb. 7 and Feb. 21 city council hearings, "I cannot stress enough the importance of getting this right," Weitkemper writes. "There are hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements that must be made to the city's wastewater system. Basement back-ups and sanitary sewer overflows are not acceptable. This amended sewer ordinance will establish the foundation required to generate the revenue needed to pay for the work that has to be done."
That foundation has been shaky, under-billing big-wig customers to the tune of roughly $1.2 million annually,
Weitkemper has estimated. Stabilizing the foundation has been anything but easy on him.
"Not only did the City Manager and Public Works Director both refuse my offer to assist city staff to develop an amended sewer ordinance," Weitkemper tells the City Council, "but I received [the aforementioned] response from the Public Works Director concerning my request for information."
Glascock's regrettable rejoinder turns the Sunshine Law on its head, using it to discourage rather than foster transparency.
Had City Hall listened to Weitkemper early on, some serious missteps may have been avoided.
A 2007 audit to correct sewer billing flaws, for instance, had "owners of ten mobile home parks and ten apartment complexes given a thirty day notice that their base charge was going to increase -- significantly," Weitkemper explains. "Each of these twenty property owners saw their base charge increase from $73 a year to between $6,000 and $20,000 a year!"
Those property owners complained that the University of Missouri, similarly under-billed for sewer service, "was instead given a twelve month notice," with the increased charges "spread over ten years."
Going over his recommendations, which include changes to commercial and non-residential sewer billing practices, Weitkemper concludes that the new ordinance must be "fair and equitable; understandable by customers and staff; and administrable by staff."
The present proposal, he says, is understandable and administrable, but not fair and equitable. "Two out of three is not acceptable," Weitkemper tells the City Council.