County Executive “Regains” Budget Authority

Last Tuesday evening at the meeting of the Whatcom County Council, the County Executive Jack Louws asked for, and received permission to re-allocate public money between various accounts without prior authorization from the council. The council did demand quarterly reports for review. This is about a month after the council discovered and reverted a misallocation of more than a million dollars by the previous county executive. I have a problem with that, which I shared with the council:

Honorable Council Members,

I am very uneasy about your decision to vacate your authority over the Executive’s budget constraints. I do not think a quarterly report after the fact is an acceptable substitute for an active oversight and approval process. Are you going to be able to reverse questionable or improper allocation once the money has been spent, and the deed is done?

As the saying goes, “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.” It is already difficult enough for the people to keep government responsible for our actual needs without running off into the weeds so frequently. We rely on our elected representatives to help us do that, and it feels as if we just lost another round in that ongoing effort.

In your deliberation, the word “efficiency” came up several times. I think efficiency in government is a chilling thought. Nazi Germany was “efficient”. Josef Stalin was “efficient”. The Taliban are “efficient”. In non-emergencies, citizens don’t need government to be more efficient, we need government to be more deliberative and more open. Review and explicit authorization are the cornerstone of a free society.

It isn’t that I don’t trust this particular Executive. I think we all do, and that’s the problem. Mistakes, misunderstandings, and differences of opinion can and do happen. That’s what checks and balances are for. Please reconsider, if that is still possible.

etc., etc., etc.

So far, I have received responses from two council members. One said that she thought this was a reasonable compromise, and that the review process would suffice. Also that we have laws against outright fraud and malfeasance, and that she would rely on citizens to be watchful. The other said that the council recently added this authorization process, and now they were simply removing it again, since it was too burdensome. I responded,

I don’t mean to be argumentative here, but I do want to make sure I made my point clearly enough and strongly enough.

Human nature dictates that it really is much (much!) easier to get forgiveness than permission. I therefore believe that any concerns that the council has upon reviewing the quarterly reports will be much less strongly held, and much less likely to be raised after the fact. People don’t like confrontation, they don’t like being judgmental, and they try to avoid it whenever possible. We tend to say, “What’s done is done, no use crying over spilled milk”. But spilled taxpayer dollars are a bit more serious to people like me, who have a limited and steadily diminishing supply.

On the other hand, if authorization is required before the fact as part of standard operating procedure, the concerns would not necessarily be confrontational or judgmental, but simply part of the discussion on the merits of the case. I think this new policy will put the council in an awkward position, a weaker position, and less likely to prevent runaway government on behalf of the people you represent.

I understand we have laws to prevent outright fraud and malfeasance, but not every issue is that clear cut. I believe this new policy discourages the healthy skepticism and deliberation that is supposed to be built into our system of government. I actually could not believe more strongly, that we should be moving in the exact opposite direction from where this action is taking us.

Am I an ideologue, or is burdensome something that is better applied by the citizens on government than the reverse? If citizens were watchful, I doubt that most of the problems we currently have with government would even exist. We the People have been allowing our government to run on autopilot for too long. We need to reverse that trend.

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One comment

  1. Great letters and communication. One of the key factors that really left me “cold” about this whole issue was that the ordinance stated that there were changes to the cost/work centers on an “almost daily” basis, but when asked to provide an example the Executive and Staff were unable to do so. They stumbled and came up with some obscure event that did not seam to me to have anything to do with what they were trying to accomplish.

    Does this make you wonder? Did the Council realize or even care that they did not receive an answer?

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