The struggle for transparency in El Cerrito

I wrote previously about the TRAN loans that have been keeping the city afloat since 2011. On May 21, 2020, I sent a request for information on the costs of these loans. It specifically said

“I saw in the supplemental slide set some info about the trans.

What I would like to know is

1. What year did the city first start getting trans? That year how much was it for, what was interest rate, and actual dollars of interest, and cost of obtaining the Tran (such as what is indicated in the contract you sent me for NBA) 2. From 2012 to current date the same info, interest rate, actual dollars paid in interest, and cost to obtain the loan.“

A week later I got a response from the City Clerk

“This information is available by searching the archives of agenda materials on our website at http://el-cerrito.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=43. “

That is the link to all agendas and minutes for El Cerrito City Council meetings. I was expected to go through them all. Many of them are over 100 pages long.

I unhappily replied

“With all due respect that is a ridiculous response. I am expected to go through years of agenda items to find this? Information that should be easily gotten from the finance department. This is not transparent government. ”

I recevied the following responses

“All of the information you are requesting is contained in the staff reports and resolutions. The results in the first two pages provide all the information you requested”

She then immediately sent this reply

‘My apologies, I tried to paste a link and accidently hit send. The results in the first two pages provide all the information requested.”

If you click on that link there are 2560 links below it.

I actually tried to dig through the materials. But I could not find the information for 2011 and 2014. (Though with further digging later I did find 2014) so on May 29, 2020, I sent the following reply

“I did dig through this. I am unable to find the cost of the loans (fees to obtain) for 2011 and 2014. And also wanted to confirm if WestAmerica had them.

I found this for 2014 listed but it seems like there was further action taken. I did search agendas for a few meetings past this with no luck. 

http://www.el-cerrito.org/DocumentCenter/View/3913/cc140819-7b?bidId=

All I found for 2011 was this

http://www.el-cerrito.org/DocumentCenter/View/1040/cc111121-5d?bidId=

If you could fill in these pieces I would appreciate it.”

I never received a reply to that email.

Others have also tried and not fared any better. I have let the Mayor and some city council members know and still not gotten a response.

I have been connected with some policy wonk researchers in the community. One of them did a dive into California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission (CDIAC) data that is available on the State Treasurers website. He complied the data in an excel worksheet and sent it to me. I have linked to it here. It shows TRANS for lower amounts going back to the 1990’s. Which as you remember was one of the questions I had in the original request-how long has this been going on for?

This experience is the epitome of what has been happening in El Cerrito. There is no transparency. The law requires that the city give information to its constituents. That obligation is clearly not being met by sending pages of thousands of links. It also says something that the city council members and mayor I reached out to over the past weeks were not able to get the information to me either.

I just just sent a new request for information on Fire Department Data. Some of this data has been long requested by others. It is hard for any of us to do an analysis on the Fire Department without data on overtime usage. We have not gotten data on how the city decided to not hire new staff but instead pay OT. Or how much the Kensington contract costs the city. Or how much we were reimbursed by the state for OT for state fires. Or how much OT was given for the fire fighters that stayed in our community when others were fighting state fires. It shouldn’t be this hard to get information from the city. If I, someone who knows how to dig and push, can’t get it, how is an average citizen suppose to get information? I have documented my efforts in both the TRAN request and this new request. I recently learned that there are lawyers that love this type of case. Because if the city refuses to give information and loses they pay lawyers fees. I feel like a city bordering on bankruptcy should not put itself in the position of a citizen having to take such severe action to get results.

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