Editor’s note: The following was submitted by City Councilor Breanna Lungo-Koehn:
What matters more in the decisions government makes: Process or outcome? My experience is that outcomes are better if there is commitment to a transparent process where all are allowed a seat at the table. And the outcome of lack of transparency is that large parts of the community question the integrity of elected decision-makers. It’s the taxpayer dollars we as government leaders spend and it’s the community we are privileged to serve.
In a city like Medford with amazing and diverse talent, the best idea should win no matter who has it. One of the gifts of transparency is that it leads to more ideas. Without transparency, people don’t have the information to make informed suggestions and they can’t add to the discussion about how to seize opportunities and avoid hardship. Without a transparent process and regular communication, questions linger about motives and methods and those questions inhibit the potential for progress. Over time, taxpayers and voters check out altogether and become disillusioned. This deprives our city of the ideas and energy necessary to unleash its full potential.
Our current FY 2020 budget debate highlights the perfect example of how we’re failing to adequately share the information on city finances and spending priorities with taxpayers. In prior budgets, councilors have requested format changes to how budgets are presented such as an actuals column. Those changes have not been accepted. We were recently provided a budget that showed the appropriation from the prior and proposed fiscal year, but no actuals, which helps guide the process.
We need to see the data presented to highlight actual spending versus budgeted spending and future spending proposals. But it’s not just the councilors who need this information; taxpayers are entitled to it as well and the city benefits from their engagement. We’ve funded new information systems to help with this important work. The result seems to be a defunct website with aged data:
A voter who owns a home in Medford and pays taxes brought this to my attention. He was trying to learn about spending priorities. The voter appreciates the work of the new recreation department but continues to be concerned about city parks and the poor state of our buildings and roads. In researching whether the city was prioritizing these efforts, he looked at this website linked to our city’s budget. The presentation of the FY20 budget available to the public makes it hard to discern what’s happened in the past, what progress has been made on previous spending priorities and what is changing in terms of future spending. With information for FY 2018 and no progress updates, he was left without any clear sense of Medford’s priorities, except that it’s clearly not important to city leaders that taxpayers know what is going on.
As city leaders, we need to embrace the idea that the discussion is a necessary part of the solution and access to information is the key to change. That’s my commitment throughout this campaign and if elected, as Mayor. Tough decisions behind closed doors can’t be the way we do business. We can’t run from dialogue on tough topics or use outdated techniques to share performance data. Community discussions on controversial topics are messy if they lack the voice of leaders to provide data, focus and hope. It’s time for Medford City Hall to embrace transparency and to invite the best ideas for how we embrace opportunities and solve problems by being willing to engage.
Transparency also involves courageously naming our problems: unplanned and haphazard growth, crumbling infrastructure, city services that lack the benefits of modern efficiency or technology, and unsupported teachers and public safety officials among the highest on my list. All these problems are worse because we haven’t been transparent about the depth or cause of the issues or how City Hall will approach solving them. We shouldn’t fear these problems or pretend they don’t exist out of a sense of pride. No one loves Medford more than me, but that doesn’t mean the world around us hasn’t placed pressure on our community or that our leaders have failed to solve them. We need to clearly articulate not only the problem, but the process government embraces to consider all the paths to solve a problem. No more zoning variances for haphazard development as one example. Over the course of this campaign, I will outline specific proposals to solve our problems, including the ways a Lungo-Koehn administration will engage the community.
With a clear understanding of the opportunities and problems before us, and with a clear path to consider alternatives or to make decisions in a clear and predictable way, decisions are easier to embrace, even when they are tough. That’s what we’ll do. Leaders need to share why we make the decisions we make and the right process facilitates that discovery and conclusion. Without transparency in embracing the problem, process, and solution, taxpaying voters are left questioning why decisions are made and also why stubborn problems persist.
I invite voters of Medford to share their problems, how they want to interact with government, and what solutions they want to see made reality with our campaign and with City Hall. We want your ideas because we know that’s the best way to move Medford forward. Our campaign is about community, unity and integrity. It all starts with transparency: that’s how we get the best process and outcomes for Medford. While this current budget includes many important priorities, it was crafted without adequate process to engaged taxpayers.
As a taxpayer, what would you have liked to see included in this year’s budget, other than a seat at the table?
Breanna Lungo-Koehn is a Medford City Councilor and candidate for mayor.