Their View

Helena city government lacking transparency
Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The soul of democracy is transparency, which is not something Helena residents are getting from their city leaders right now.

Some city employees have recently told reporters on multiple occasions that they are no longer allowed to provide information on a variety of topics, directing questions to Helena’s new city manager instead.

The problem is, City Manager Ana Cortez and Mayor Wilmot Collins haven’t been particularly forthcoming either.

In the last few months, reporters have had trouble getting information from the city on issues as basic as a street closure and a frozen water main that left a half dozen Helena businesses without water. And the questions are continuing to pile up.

In May, the city approved a $52,630 contract with a company that submitted a proposal 23 days after the RFP deadline “at the request of Helena City Manager Ana Cortez,” even though the RFP specifically states “Submittals delivered after the posted deadline will not be considered for selection.” City officials said they extended the deadline to get more applicants, though they have yet to say whether that extension was publicly advertised and have not yet responded to a June 10 records request for a version of the RFP that reflects the new deadline. Cortez also declined to say why she requested the late proposal instead of contracting with another company that submitted a lower bid on time.

Earlier this month Cortez missed a city commission meeting and many of the other appointments listed on her public calendar over the course of several days, and she would not say whether she was gone for professional or personal reasons. Every member of the city commission also declined to say why the city manager was missing her appointments. When contacted by phone about the city manager’s absence, Collins told a reporter “no comments ever” and hung up, before calling back to say he would not talk about personnel issues. The mayor then referred questions to City Attorney Thomas Jodoin, who also declined to comment on the matter.

The city recently denied a public records request for the minutes from a June 7 city commission meeting, which included a closed-door executive session to discuss “personnel matters,” because the draft document has not yet been approved by the city commission. This likely violates a district court ruling that says draft documents held by a public body must be open to public inspection, according to a letter to the city from Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who specializes in open records and open meetings laws.

After a community member at last week’s Hometown Helena event asked whether the city could afford to manage the 72 acres recently donated by Prickly Pear Land Trust, Cortez said policy questions like that would have to be directed to the mayor and city commission. When reached by a reporter later that day, the mayor said he would have to call back with an answer, but the call never came.

Cortez has declined to answer questions about the two department heads who were placed on administrative leave and four who resigned in recent months, though a public records request later produced documents showing the fire chief stepped down amid an investigation into his unprofessional behavior. After a reporter asked one high-ranking city official about the disciplinary action taken against him, the city manager told the editor in a profanity-laden phone call that she does not consider performance issues involving city employees to be public matters.

Cortez has also declined to answer questions about an issue that followed her from her last job as assistant city manager in Yakima, Washington. In March of this year, the Yakima Police Patrolmans Association accused Cortez and Yakima’s city manager of providing “misleading or vague information” to the city council to give the impression that the city was overspending on public safety needs. Cortez directed questions about the issue to Yakima’s public information officer.

Our reporters aren’t the only ones who have noticed a lack of transparency in the ranks of Helena’s government. City commission candidate Emily Dean said she had difficulties obtaining an advance copy of the city’s preliminary budget, and city commission candidate Sean Logan said the lack of transparency surrounding recent rate increases and staff turnover is part of what inspired him to run for office this year.

We recently invited the mayor and city manager to meet with our editorial board to discuss these and other issues, and to talk about how we can work together to open up the lines of communication between the city, the newspaper and the community. Both officials said that meeting would have to wait until the city hires its own public information officer, which Cortez noted should happen “fairly soon.”

It’s unclear why the mayor and city manager need a PIO to do a job their predecessors seemed to have no trouble taking care of on their own, and Helena residents deserve to have direct access to their government decisionmakers without having to go through an intermediary.

We also doubt this new PIO will be allowed to answer many of the questions other city officials are refusing to address. But if creating this new position is what it takes to make Helena’s government open and accessible again, we wholeheartedly welcome the change.

— Independent Record