Last summer, due to pressure from us, Manassas adopted the first actual budget it has had in decades, if ever. Now, like a pre-teen who spent her allowance and wants to rifle through Daddy’s wallet to go to the mall with her friends, a few months ago Councilwoman Tonya Edwards led an effort to bypass the budgeting process.
Now, we are proud to report that we have also exposed this effort, using a combination of meeting attendance and open records requests to smoke out truth from fantasy and subterfuge. This story isn’t over yet, though, it has just started, and you, fellow leech watcher, will get to see it unfold live on these pages.
First, the timeline:
June, 2016: Manassas approves the budget using the mandated formal process. We’ll drill into inconsistencies in this budget later, including objections we raised during the May review about issues which are now beginning to unfold in predictable ways.
Oct, 2016: With the city running out of money about four months into the budget, Councilwoman Tonya Edwards proposed at this meeting that the city give itself the authority to modify the budget on a whim by simple resolution rather than the formal budget modification process. She claims to have received permission from the Georgia Municipal Association to do so, despite this advisory body not having authority to grant permission for anything. Parents will recognize this strategy as claiming to Daddy that Mommy said it was OK. Here’s a direct quote from Councilwoman Edwards from the October city council meeting:
“We need to pass a resolution to be able to amend the budget by motion of the council instead of an ordinance. I’ve spoken with the Georgia Municipal Association at length on this subject and was advised that what we need to do is just pass a resolution stating that we can amend our city budget by motion of the council, line item, any time, you know, whenever is needed to maintain our balanced budget in the general fund.”
Despite the charter requiring budget amendments be made by ordinance (requiring several meetings and publication in the local paper), the council then voted on this verbal motion and approved it.
What is hidden in the quote above is the deceptively worded goal of obtaining a balanced budget in the general fund. However, Manassas has a long history of robbing Peter’s water fund to pay Paul’s general fund expenses, or in other words, a history of diverting Daddy’s water service revenues to fund whatever their little mall rat hearts desire. It is important to note that the water system was funded by state grants as a separate budgetary entity, and surplus revenues are to serve the needs of the water system, and not to be a general slush fund as has been the case in the past before we forced them to adopt a budget.
Nov, 2016: Not satisfied with a verbal resolution, the city council acted yet again in this meeting, but this time in a blatantly evasive way. The city council passed around copies of a mystery resolution to itself and the newly hired city attorney, but not to the public. They read it silently to themselves, and then approved it by unanimous vote. During the public comments portion of the meeting, I requested that the resolution be read aloud so the public could know what was passed in this Stasi-style silent vote. Councilwoman Edwards then read the already-passed resolution. This time, the wording was:
“Be it resolved by the City council, this 14th day of November 2016 that the Charter, section 6.28 can be, and is hereby, amended to state that the City Council, by motion may make changes in the appropriations contained in the current operating budget, at any regular meeting, special or emergency meeting called for such purpose, but any additional appropriations may be made only from an existing unexpended surplus.”
After another unanimous vote on this version of the budget end-run resolution, the city then immediately voted to approve budget changes. During this portion of the meeting, once again Councilwoman Edwards invoked the Georgia Municipal Association while tap-dancing around budget shuffling, particularly the source of the funds that were moved. The city council then unanimously approved this budget change, once again without using the formal budget process.
Dec, 2016: I requested a copy of the mystery resolution, and was given an unsigned copy. The lack of these signatures, if deliberate, might indicate a growing unease about having been caught with their hand in the water budget.
Jan, 2017: At this city council meeting, Councilwoman Edwards announced that a formal budget meeting will be called in January, using the formal process that the various versions of the shady resolution was designed to bypass. Why pass a resolution to bypass, and then go back to the formal process? Perhaps they had discovered that what they had done is improper, and possibly even illegal.
To clarify the status of this resolution, during the public comments portion of the meeting, I asked whether the resolution, which had previously been used as authority to modify the budget, had been signed. The following exchange ensued:
Leech City: “Back in October or November, there was a resolution or whatever that you guys voted on to change the way you handle funds, to change the budgeting process. Now, I did an open records request and the clerk gave me a copy of that, but it had not been signed by either the mayor or the clerk at the time. Have you guys signed that at this point or is it still unsigned?”
Mayor Rogers: “That was signed.”
Councilwoman Edwards: “I believe so, I’m not sure, I mean I would assume (unintelligible).”
City Clerk Durrence (shakes head):
Mayor Rogers: “Did you just give him a copy? ”
City Clerk Durrence: “I guess. I had, I got, I had my, uh, minutes so I’m sure that was a copy of mine.”
Mayor Rogers: “OK. Well.”
Leech City: “So, is that signed?”
Mayor Rogers: “Pardon me?”
Leech City: “Have you signed it now?”
Mayor Rogers: “I don’t know, I’m not aware of that right now.”
Note the mayor’s evasiveness; the mayor has either signed the resolution or she hasn’t. Given that this is the only action of the season, the mayor certainly can’t have forgotten whether she signed this document. At first, she is certain that she has signed it, but at the end, she pulls a Hillary and claims to not know whether she has signed it or not. Or perhaps she develops situational amnesia when cornered. And this is the woman who has been certified for testing the city’s water supply. Flint, Michigan, anyone? Maybe we should look at her water reports and see whether those have been signed also.
Also note that if the city changed the use of funds without authority, even with this flimsy resolution, they are in trouble. If they have lied about this resolution and its origination, they are in trouble. If the resolution itself is illegal, they are in trouble. The only one who appears to have simply done her duty in this instance is the city clerk, and the others just let her twist in the wind during this questioning and take the heat as an incompetent, or worse.
We’ll be digging into this issue in more detail and see how it all shakes out. Interestingly, the above evasion occurred with the new sheriff, Kyle Sapp, in attendance.
We close with a Karaoke dedication to Councilwoman Edwards, who sometimes uses the name “Toni”, as set to the tune of “Barbie Girl”:
I’m a Toni girl, in a Toni world,
Budget elastic, it’s fantastic!
Water money here, I’ll spend it over there,
Imagination, spending your taxation.
(male contractor chorus) Come on Toni, spend some money!
(ah ah ah yeah)
Come on Toni, spend more money!
(ooo ah ahh, ooo ah ahh)