Mary Koep and Bob Olson are at it again.
A week after sparring over a utility payment to the Brainerd Public Library during a Brainerd City Council budget workshop, the two council members on Monday argued who wasted more money - Koep by attending conferences or Olson through submitting too many memos for information requests.
Monday's debate was an extension of the budget session on Nov. 9 in which the council voted to reduce its professional development fund from $3,500 to $2,000.
At that meeting, Olson suggested eliminating the entire fund. In a Nov. 10 memo to the council, he said Koep used 81 percent of the fund for the entire council between 2003 and 2006 for a grand total of $4,931.
On Monday, during the Personnel and Finance Committee, which she chairs, and during the regular city council meeting, Koep countered that the city should start keeping track of how much council members - Olson in particular, though she didn't name him - use in staff time having information requests fulfilled. A city policy to that effect exists but isn't enforced.
Koep said Olson's memo pointing out how much of the council's professional development fund she uses amounted to a form of intimidation.
While some memos Olson has sent do save money, she said some do nothing.
"I have no clue what good they are," Koep said. "They're just to see what kind of dirt they can dig up on somebody."
She said tracking and charging for information requests is not meant to prevent them from being made. However, she said that if all seven members of the council and the mayor made similar requests, two or three staff members would need to be added.
City Administrator Dan Vogt said he's received 280 memos so far in 2009. He said it's up to the council to decide to enforce a policy of tracking the time it takes to fulfill such information requests from council members.
Vogt asked that a fee for information requests start when the request is made rather than after the first 10 minutes, as is currently in the policy from private residents. He said that on Friday he received a request for how much the city reimbursed Koep more than a decade ago after she ruined a shoe after getting stuck in a muddy street while campaigning for the Crow Wing County Board. He said staff spent on hour on the request but turned up nothing. At the committee meeting, Koep said she believed the contractor for the street project paid the cost.
"It might sound funny, but I called it a ridiculous request at the (Personnel and Finance Committee) meeting," Vogt said. "Frankly it was waste of taxpayer's money and staff's time."
Olson said he's never had problems with city hall fulfilling his information requests, overtime is never used to fulfill them and often they have saved the city money, such as $600,000 in interest on a bond levy during the summer.
He said he's never heard one recommendation from a council member who has attended a conference that would save Brainerd taxpayers any money.
"When we start getting up on a soap box and saying these memos are costing taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars, I think it's time for a response." Olson said.
Olson said Koep's recommendation to start charging for information was merely a response to his recommendation to cut the development fund. He said there isn't enough in the fund left for other council members to attend government conferences.
Olson also said that every year he presents to council members his recommendations on where the budget can be cut.
"I have to say, and finance chair, you haven't brought a lot of cuts to the budget," Olson said.
He said that even if the council decides to start charging, by state statute he has a right to inspect all public information at city hall.
Council member Anne Nelson Fisher, who as council vice president was presiding over the council meeting in Council President Kevin Goedker's absence, cut off several rebuttal attempts by Koep and Olson.
"I'm sure we will continue this discussion in the future," Fisher said.
Koep's and Olson's argument even spilled over to the appointment of former council member Mark O'Day to the Brainerd Public Utilities Commission. Olson questioned whether new people could be found instead of "retreads." Koep then commended Mayor James Wallin for making the appointment. Wallin said he took offense to Olson's comments.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
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