Dealing with amateurs
One of the blessings of democracy — or the curse, you decide — is that amateurs can help run our government.
Sometimes that can lead to funny, harmless mistakes. On Monday, I met a political aide who counted 40 to 45 people where only 25 actually existed.
She glanced into a crowded room, didn’t have the experience to know she should count every head, and came up with an estimate. I stood next to her and counted heads to get the real number. No harm done — and I bet she’ll never eyeball it again.
But sometimes a lack of experience isn’t so harmless. On Tuesday, I called 59 city finance departments across the state to get one basic budget number. At first I was enthusiastic, because the first two finance commissioners I called were able to give me their total budget expenditure without even pausing to look it up. This was exactly what I expected; after all, if you stopped me on the street, I could tell you not only what Schenectady’s total budget is ($75.7 million) but also the general amount for police ($16 million) and fire ($10 million). I use those figures so often in my stories that I have them memorized. I expect no less of the folks who actually work with those budgets in the finance department every day.
But I had the following conversation so many times that I began to see Schenectady’s finance people as geniuses. Here’s how it went:
Me: Hi, I’m Kathleen Moore with The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y. I’m working on a story for which I need to compute the per capita spending of every city in the state. So I need to know what your total budgeted spending is for the current year.
Me: What’s your total budget?
Me: Your budgeted expenditures for the year? For general fund, water fund, sewer fund?
Them: I’m sorry, I don’t understand the reference. What do you want?
These are the people running city finance departments?
Amazingly enough, those experiences were actually eclipsed today by my conversation with a woman in the city of Corning finance department.
She didn’t like the sound of my story, right off the bat.
“What do you want that for?” she asked.
I explained that I was trying to determine the average per capita spending for cities in New York. The average, I said, would be used for means of comparison in a story about Schenectady.
She told me how much Corning will spend in their general fund this year. I asked her to also give me the total for the other funds — sewer, water, maybe a recreation fund — and she clammed up.
“You’ll have to FOIL for that,” she said.
What? You know, other than the one time that Rotterdam Town Clerk Eunice Esposito made me FOIL for a Town Board meeting agenda, this has got to be the most ludicrous FOIL request I’ve ever had to write. I mean, what could possibly be more public than the amount of money the public is spending on city government? There’s nothing in the FOI law that allows the amount of money to be hidden, or even partially redacted. It’s required to be available to the public. In fact, about half of the state’s cities posted their budgets online, allowing me to figure out the total without even bothering their civil servants.
Arguing does no good, so I just asked for the e-mail address of the person who handles FOILs. (An amendment to the law requires government to accept electronic FOI requests.)
But apparently news of that law has not yet reached Corning. There, everyone must fill out a special form, she told me.
Now, that’s actually illegal — the law specifically states that you can’t require a certain form. If I rip a page out of notebook and scrawl my request on it, that must be accepted.
But fine. I asked for a copy of the form. She transferred me to the City Clerk’s office, where, once I explained that I am in Schenectady and can’t very well drive to Corning, someone was kind enough to agree to fax it to me. I faxed it back within minutes.
Somehow, I’m guessing my story will just have to get along without Corning.
As for the other 57 cities I called, the treasurer of Lockport was the only one who instantly understood what I meant by “per capita spending.” He not only gave me the correct budget figures, but he also looked up the population and calculated the per capita expenditure for me. Now there’s a civil servant for you.