Did you hear the story about one fellow asking another, “What’s the best way to catch a porcupine?”
“Get a barrel,” said his companion.
“A barrel? Why?” asked the first man.
Said the second, “That will give you something to sit on while you figure out your next move.”
Governments have a tendency of sitting on barrels when tough situations come up. On the federal level, sequestration comes to mind.
Sometimes sitting on a barrel is a great idea — if the intent is to make an informed decision rather than just putting off making one. A case in point occurred at last week’s City Council meeting.
The issue was whether the city should start charging citizens for fulfilling their requests for public records.
City Administrator Brent Trout said there is a big difference between someone requesting a one-page document and someone asking for 20 or 30 years worth of copies of lengthy documents.
If a request for information takes hours of staff time, Trout thinks individuals should have to pay for that — but he sought the council’s advice before implementing a policy.
The council discussion that followed was one of the best I’ve observed in many years of council-watching.
Council members had widely differing viewpoints. Yet their discussion was civil, respectful and informative. No one was hesitant to speak up.
Alex Kuhn said, “Mason City citizens knowing they have an open, transparent government they can trust is more valuable to me than the monetary value we would charge for researching information that they are already paying for as a tax- payer.”
In other words, they shouldn’t have to pay an extra fee.
But John Lee pointed out the new disorderly premises ordinance, a pet project of Kuhn’s, provides for a police service fee — an extra charge to taxpayers.
Kuhn and Scott Tornquist suggested charging only for requests from out of town.
But Travis Hickey said he favored charging for all requests. His point: Why should all taxpayers share the cost for individual requests for information?
Trout also wants public records requests published on the city’s website.
Kuhn and Tornquist thought that was unnecessary — but Lee and Jean Marinos thought it was in keeping with having a transparent government.
Janet Solberg was uneasy about charging city residents but was concerned about requests that could be costly to the city.
In the end, the council decided to monitor the requests for 90 days, determine how much staff time is taken up and what the cost is to taxpayers.
Given that information, they thought they would be in a better position to make a decision.
In other words, they wisely decided to sit on the barrel until more research could be done on the porcupine.
- Reach John Skipper at email@example.com.