Dan Schroeder may be a mild-mannered physics professor at Weber State University in his day job, but off hours he’s an advocate for ethics in Ogden City's government. Recently, his website, the Ogden Ethics Project, unearthed a public-records gem by acquiring a line-item budget for the entire city and posting it online. While the detailed budget of where and how Ogdenites' money was being spent is a very public record, Schroeder says he didn’t get the records without a fight.
Schroeder got the Ethics Project up and rolling in 2011 as a watchdog for the 2011 elections, but in recent months, Schroeder says the project has been working just to advance public transparency in Ogden City government. How he came to discover that the city internally had a very detailed line-item budget came as a result of some other sleuthing he was doing.
“About a year ago, I discovered that the water and sewer department are taking in a lot more revenue then they’re spending. Some of that revenue is piling up as cash and then is transferred to the city general fund,” Schroeder says. He argues the hiking of utility rates operates as a stealth tax used to fund other city services, without drawing the same scrutiny that a traditional tax would. While Schroeder felt he was onto something, he also was referred by city staff to a line-item budget. In January 2013, Schroeder made a records request for the line-item budget and would, after several months of resistance, only obtain the budget document in March.
While Ogden City posts a version of the budget on its website, it’s not nearly as detailed as the line-item budget, Schroeder says. For example, the budget posted on the website breaks golf-course-related expenditures into 10 categories, while the line-item budget breaks it down into 100 more sub categories of expenses. Schroeder says the city denied his initial Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, request for public documents. He offered to have the state’s GRAMA ombudsman help mediate the dispute, but the city chose not to participate in the mediation.
After further appeal of the denial, Schroeder says that Ogden City agreed to provide the documents, but instead of providing the massive document in an electronic format, the city insisted on printing out the document and charging Schroeder 25 cents a page, for $169 in total printing costs.
“I think it’s important if you are requesting documents from the government not to take up inordinate amounts of public employees’ time,” Schroeder says. “But when they insist on doing extra work so as to charge extra for it, that’s when I think something’s wrong.”
Ogden city administrator and spokesman Mark Johnson, however, said that the city resisted releasing the budget at first because they were unaware that there was a complete, printed-out version of the line-item budget in their possession. In researching the appeal, they discovered there was one maintained by a city comptroller. Johnson says the city was still reviewing the legality of the document when Schroeder sought to bring in the state records ombudsman to the discussion and so they decided not to participate in mediation.
As for why they chose to print the record out and charge $169, Johnson writes via e-mail that that decision was made “so that the city could keep track of the record provided and reduce the chance that the document could be manipulated.”
As for filing GRAMAs, Schroeder says the best practice for an average citizen is just to practice by filing simple requests, and if they have further questions or need advice to contact the Utah GRAMA ombudsman.
“Anyone in any part of Utah that is interested in finding out more about some local government agency, you should just go ahead and file a records request,” Schroeder says. “As you do more of it, you learn what works and what doesn’t.”
To check out the Ogden line-item budget or see other Ogden City resources, like an archive of the past 10 years worth of Ogden City Council minutes, visit the Ogden Ethics Project here. To contact the Utah GRAMA ombudsman, click here.