Town of Pelham needs more transparency, shouldn’t require FOIA request to obtain audited financial statements

To the editor:

I’ve read recent letters to the editor of the Pelham Examiner on the issue of transparency and feel compelled to chime in as we consider who to vote for on Nov. 5.

If you’re new to town, congratulations, you’ve chosen a great place to live! You’ll be shocked to learn, though, that our 2.5 square mile town has a maze of three separate governments. Each of them communicates with residents with varying degrees of transparency. In my own informal survey earlier this year in trying to gather some information, the Village of Pelham got the highest marks for transparency for long-standing video recordings of its board meetings, widely-distributed detailed agendas in advance of meetings and a good amount of financial information on their webpage. The Village of Pelham Manor recently started video recordings of meetings, and the Town of Pelham just started to look into recording their meetings (saw you asking in the minutes, Maggie Klein!). The Manor board shares agendas in advance of meetings, but the town board does not. Most surprising to me was that the Manor and the town require you to submit a FOIA request to obtain their audited financial statements, while the Village of Pelham’s audited financials can be found right on their webpage. Town of Pelham audited financials for 2018 have still not been completed, but a town council member told me recently they would be by the end of October, after following up with the supervisor’s office quite a few times over the summer.

A more transparent Town of Pelham government (and Village of Pelham Manor government, also for that matter) would not require residents to jump through such hoops to get basic information on how their local government is being managed. The open-door policy that Pelham Supervisor Peter DiPaola refers to in his recent letter in which he encourages “everyone to attend town board meetings and to call, write, email, text and message any of your board members” is very important but doesn’t make for transparent governance in and of itself. Busy residents should not feel compelled to routinely attend layers of board meetings to be fully informed, engaged and to be able to ask questions. Stopping by town hall or setting up time with a town manager to ask questions, which may have worked in a different era, is not feasible nowadays, as often, all adults in a home are away from town during the day. The “open door policy” of years ago needs updating to reflect the needs of Pelham residents now.

It would be very helpful if each of the boards could maintain robust information online and periodically provide residents clear analysis of government operations, such as what is driving budget overruns and realized savings, the status of key contracts, FTE levels, revenue increases/shortfalls, use of reserves, capital expenditure plans, grant requests and usage, new programs, audit results, discussion of operating risks, etc. Another practice that makes overall reporting transparency poor is that each of the three governments uses a different budgeting format. Since we’re one town, I would hope the boards could adopt a standardized format to facilitate analysis by residents. I believe many would be more productively engaged if there was more transparency in reporting to the community.

While I’m truly grateful for all the past service of neighbors running this year, I’m voting and advocating for new voices in our town leadership. My experience over the past year trying to learn more about how our governments work (spurred on by healthy contested elections and discussions about development projects, loss of tax deductions and other issues facing our town) has left me very disappointed in the degree of transparency which exists in much of our local government today. Perhaps there is a good reason why increased transparency was not a high priority in the past, but I think improved transparency is a must going forward, as our community grows larger, more diverse and faces new financial pressures.

I’m enthusiastically supporting the Serve America Movement slate of candidates (Kristen Burke, Maura Curtin and Adam Kagan) on Nov. 5 as they are immensely qualified to lead and are committing themselves to improving transparency and communications to all residents.

Maria F. Pannullo

434 Stellar Ave.