Thursday, January 27, 2011

27 JAN 11: Read the Instructions

If you want good exercise, there's nothing like walking up several flights of stairs. I've done it at Phenix City Hall three days in a row. And before the critics of city government start spreading rumors - I did NOT do it because the elevator is broken.

I've traveled to Phenix City Hall every day this week because of a resident's complaint. Is the city violating its own charter, by not having one particular document in the City Manager's office? Alabama's new Governor might demand that document be a copy of the Ten Commandments....

The issue raised to me (actually one of many) involves Article 3, Section 20 of the Phenix City charter. It states the Council will bring in a "qualified general public accountant" at the end of each year, to examine city financial records. The accountants probably call it a good warm-up for tax season.

But here's the reason for my visits: The Phenix City charter adds the results of the accountant's annual review must be "placed in the office of the City Clerk and the office of the City Manager." That way the public can examine it - starting with competing accountants, looking for mistakes to mention in "attack ads."

The complainer said the 2009 review of Phenix City's financial books is not available, and thus violates the city charter. This raises a different question, of course - how many residents go to City Hall and ask to look it over? Aren't they more likely to hunt down old Central High School yearbooks?

But armed with this complaint, I decided to check Phenix City Hall. When I asked for the "audit review" at the City Manager's office Monday morning, the receptionist told me the City Clerk would have it. That's the second floor, not the third floor. At least my breath recovered by the time I was told that.

Down to the second floor I went, only to be told the audit review should be in the City Manager's office. Besides, a receptionist told me, the Phenix City Clerk was out sick. In fact, Charlotte Sierra apparently has had the flu for days -- so her virus germs could be all over the paperwork.

Come back tomorrow, I was told Monday -- so I returned to Phenix City Hall Tuesday. The City Clerk was still out sick, but the third-floor receptionist had a message for me from City Manager Wallace Hunter. No, he did NOT accuse me of being a stooge for the school board....

I was told the audit review was not available because Phenix City officials are allowed to examine a draft of it, then return it to the accountant for final revisions. That final document apparently still hasn't come back. And apparently the city budget is so tight that staff members can't afford to make photocopies of the draft.

So the audit review is a work in progress - and come to think of it, that seems a little strange. We're talking about Phenix City's 2009 records here, not 2010. If it takes more than one year to finalize a review of one year's financial records, does that mean the city is spending too much?

But one other issue nagged me about all this. Was the complainer quoting the Phenix City charter accurately, or only a part of it? That led to Wednesday's third trip to City Hall - after a phone call to the Phenix City-Russell County Library, to learn it does NOT have a copy of the charter on file. The library can be trusted with women's magazines, but not this....

The Phenix City charter was available for checking at the City Manager's office - and Article 3, Section 20 does mention city audits being kept at that same office. It says nothing about a process involving drafts and revisions. But then again, the copy I read also puts a limit on the mayor's salary at $1,000 per month.

Since I had the Phenix City charter handy, I read it completely to check on other issues. Article 3 mentions the Council's power to appoint the school board, but it says nothing about removing members. Article 9 adds Councilors can investigate the school board, even to "subpoena witnesses" and "administer oaths." Superintendent Larry DiChiara should be thankful Jimmy Wetzel hasn't read that part yet.

BLOG UPDATE: So I was studying in the computer room Wednesday night when the phone rang - and it was Mayor Teresa Tomlinson! And I hadn't even called her office during the day! This is the stuff that could spark tabloid rumors....

The mayor called to correct something which led to our main Tuesday topic. Teresa Tomlinson denied telling WRBL the city faced a "crisis" with its budget. She then e-mailed me her "budget guidance statement" which says: "In a time when cities across the country are in financial crisis, Columbus, Georgia has maintained a prudent course." So put that bad word back on Hurtsboro.

Mayor Tomlinson said several retired city employees had come to her, expressing concern about that word "crisis." I didn't realize this blog had so many older readers - so maybe I don't need to explain the jokes about old newspaper cartoons anymore.

At that point, I asked the mayor a probing question. Would she take the Rush Limbaugh approach of years ago -- and say we don't have a budget crisis, we have a problem? The staff at Fox News Channel ought to love me for that one....

"I prefer to call it a challenge," Mayor Tomlinson answered. So it's still a "C word" - and if you want to donate to this "Columbus Challenge" as much as you did to build the RiverCenter, she'll gladly accept it.

Teresa Tomlinson added there's a "possibility - in italics" (yes, she asked for that) that the fiscal 2012 budget could have room for growth. She says it depends on what actuaries tell her in coming weeks. Translation: The mayor still is NOT driving a fully-loaded Ford Focus.

THE BIG BLOG QUESTION put Teresa Tomlinson on top again, when it closed Wednesday night. The mayor and her husband led the voting for the top "power couple" of Columbus. In fact, I only remembered to close the poll after she called - so I couldn't even congratulate her for winning.

Our absurdly non-scientific one-week poll ended with Trip and Teresa Tomlinson atop the table, at 32 percent. Second place was a tie at 20 percent between Mr. and Mrs. Sanford Bishop and Mr. and Mrs. Ricky Boren. Critics of one still haven't presented enough evidence of corruption to the other.

E-MAIL UPDATE: The "strip mall" discussion on Moon Road continues today. Apparently we had the shopping center right. But....

Richard ..Did you go to the Knology strip mall during rush hour?..Try about 8AM or 5:30 PM...Thanks for giving it a try..You were just lucky at the time you went..You should have played poker that day and used that luck to win some cash..

I was there at around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. That qualifies as "rush hour" in a lot of cities -- and people stuck on 13th Street downtown at 4:30 p.m. probably would say Columbus counts.

We'll get to other e-mails Friday - but now let's review the midweek news:

+ Rain ended in Columbus, as the high temperature reached 50 degrees F. CBS News reported the state of Georgia has spent 90 percent of its ten-million dollar budget for snow removal. So if you're planning a weekend trip to Panama City Beach, please bring back two buckets filled with sand.

+ Muscogee County School District officials told WRBL two parents have been caught cheating on "residency affidavits," attempting to get their children into better schools. I assume the guilty parties are fathers - since they're much more likely to use the "I don't use maps" excuse.

+ It was moving day at Fire Station #2, as the old building closed after more than 62 years of service. OK, Firehouse Subs - it's time to put some money where your mouths are, and open a new location.

+ Alabama Governor Robert Bentley announced he's creating a "Commission on Improving State Government." Step one: raid all casinos, to save the state money for continually calling up the National Guard.

+ WTVM found a 2004 Auburn University football "championship" ring at Northside Pawn. A player on the team pawned it about six months ago. Either he's desperate for money, or he had a job interview scheduled at the University of Alabama.

+ Carver High School running back Isaiah Crowell dropped Auburn from his list of college choices. It's apparently down to Georgia and Alabama - so if you see a young man running on the 14th Street Pedestrian Bridge next Wednesday, it could be Crowell illustrating his decision.

+ Roundball Night in Dixieland (tm) saw Old Dominion down Georgia State's men 51-48. The fact that I'm mentioning this game should tell you what a slow night it was....

+ Instant Message to Jeryl Carter: I can only imagine the grief you've had to endure for 15 months. But to tell the Ledger-Enquirer, "It kind of irked me. It kind of got to me...." - well, throwing a chair in court almost makes that the understatement of the year.

SCHEDULED FRIDAY: Something's missing at a Columbus business.... and some of the employees don't even seem to know....

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