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Crestwood candidates discuss finances, CSGA at forum

Crestwood's financial condition, a state audit of the city's finances that is under way and the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance were among the topics discussed last week during a forum for five candidates who are seeking election to two seats on the city's Board of Aldermen in the April 6 election.

Three candidates — Daniel Himebaugh, James Kelleher and Jeffrey Schlink are seeking election to the Ward 2 aldermanic seat currently held by Gary Vincent, who did not file for a third, three-year term. Two candidates — incumbent Bernadine "Bernie'' Alexander and Jerry Miguel — are seeking the Ward 3 seat.

All five candidates participated in the March 15 forum, which drew nearly 70 people to the Crestwood Community Center. The forum was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Call Newspapers.

Two other candidates are unopposed in the April 6 election — Ward 1 Alderman Richard Breeding, who made a brief statement at the forum, and Ward 4 Alderman Pat Duwe.

Under the procedure established by the League of Women Voters, residents' questions were submitted in writing and then posed to the two candidates.

Candidates were asked if a citizens' committee could have uncovered the city's financial problems that led to a forensic audit and lawsuit, and whether they signed the petition calling for a state audit of the city's finances.

Miguel said, "Could a citizens' oversight committee have foreseen the budgetary problems? I think a citizens' oversight committee could have picked up the problems in the budget. I'm amazed that some of the budget issues were not picked up by the board. An over-budget of $1.4 million for merchant license revenue when the revenues for the preceding years were coming in on an average $900,000 ... I think a citizens' oversight committee would have picked up on ... items like that, yes. As far as signing the petition for the state audit, yes, I signed the petition for the state audit because I felt it was the only way to get to the bottom line. The auditors that the city hired were unknown to anyone. They did it themselves without an RFP (request for proposals). A state audit is the only way to know what's going on.''

Himebaugh said, "I fail to see how a citizens' oversight committee could have found out the problems in the financial situation because their information would have been the same as the Board of Aldermen's and that information wasn't correct. So a citizens' committee sounds like a good idea, but instead there ought to be other tools that we can use to be sure these things don't happen again ... I don't think a citizens' oversight committee is the answer and I did not sign any petition calling for a state audit.''

Schlink said, "I don't know if a citizens' group would have found the information that was discovered. Frankly, we don't know everything that is even there. I mean that the people that it's their job, it's their current responsibility to find everything. It's taken them a significant amount of time and they're putting in a regular 40-hour work week, if not not even more, with multiple people. And for a citizens' group to be asked to put in that level of commitment to that type of thing, I don't know that we have enough people that would want to do that. I'm sure there are some people that feel that that would be important enough that they'd participate in that, but I don't know if we have enough people that could do that. Maybe the idea is we change our external auditors more frequently because in the past our external auditors didn't notice it either. Maybe if we changed that up a little bit frequently, we would certainly mitigate the risk of that happening. I did not sign a petition. I have heard a lot of people when I do go door to door that they are happy that the state is here and really the comment I have to them is well, after this, you're really going to know all the answers.''

Kelleher said, "I have to agree with my Ward 2 companions that I don't believe a citizens' committee would have uncovered anything differently simply because we were lied to. Everybody was lied to as Acting Mayor Breeding pointed out earlier. So I don't believe that was the answer. I believe that everyone has acted earnestly since then, including the staff and the board and mayor, and past Mayor (Jim) Robertson, in trying to dig us out of this hole, and I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. I did not sign a petition and I was not approached to sign a petition.''

Alexander said, "No I do not think a citizen oversight committee would have found it. I worked in the banking industry for 15 years and when I received a certified or an audited financial statement from one of my borrowers, I considered that to be, without a doubt, unmistakably correct. This Board of Aldermen received audited financial statements from our previous auditor. They were not correct. That is why this board has authorized a lawsuit against those auditors. No, I did not sign a petition for a (state) audit because on Sept. 15, as a member of the Board of the Aldermen, I authorized an RFP to be issued for a forensic audit of our 2001-2002 books. A public accounting firm works under a code of ethics. They must — they are totally independent of the people who hire them. You cannot tell them what to put in those audited statements. So therefore, I feel that the money that we're spending on a state audit is unnecessary.''

The candidates were asked whether the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance should release its membership list and financial records, whether the alliance has been a positive or negative influence on the city, what positive outcomes may or may not have come from the alliance and whether they were a member of the organization.

Kelleher said, "... I agree that the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance should publish their membership list and anything else about them. I don't — they frighten me. I don't know what they're all about. They seem to have a clandestine, hidden agenda that nobody understands. There's a lot of speculation. I think they're muddying up the entire issue at Grant and Watson Road for that development ... I am not a member, but I don't believe there's anything positive coming from the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance.''

Alexander said, "No, I am not a member of the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance. Do I believe that their financial and membership records should be open? Yes, because I support all the open meetings that we have as a city.

"All of our records are open. The only closed sessions we have are those that deal with personnel ...,'' she said, adding she does not believe the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance has done anything positive.

Miguel said, "I am not now nor have I ever been of the CSGA. It almost sounds like a question from the McCarthy era. My feeling on membership or on open records is this: If other civic groups of this type release their membership to the public, then I feel that CSGA should release their membership and financial records. In talking to people, on balance, I get a positive response to them. I do get some negatives, but on balance it's positive. Have they made a contribution? I think they have in the sense that they pass on information to citizens and, you know, I think citizens are intelligent enough to make their own decisions.''

Himebaugh said, "First of all, I'm not a member of the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance and in regards to them publishing their membership list, that is their choice. If they did, I think it might add them some credibility, but that's entirely their choice. Have they added anything positive by their actions? I'm sure they might have spurred some people who weren't thinking about some of these issues to think about them now, but that would be about it.''

Schlink said, "I am not currently a member nor have I ever been a member of the group. As far as positive, I would agree that the fact that they have gotten more people involved in city politics. I think that that's positive. I think that some of you are here tonight because of what you've read, because of what you've heard. I think that your involvement is positive. I think that the message that comes out of the group I do not believe is positive. Now we're going to pay for multiple audits now, some of which are going to overlap. I think that overall, that's a waste of the city's money, especially in light of what we've seen lately. I do not distrust the current Board of Aldermen in any way and I have no doubt that the accounting firm that's conducting the forensic audit will uphold their obligation to do what's right from a professional perspective as well as within the boundaries of the law.''

The candidates were asked to discuss the following in order of importance in their decision-making; their views, the residents' views, the views of Crestwood businesses and the non-resident, special-interest views.

Kelleher said, "... Well, certainly my No. 1 priority is the residents of Ward 2 and they will always be top on the list. The business views are important. I believe Mr. Miguel said that we're partners with our businesses and, you know, they bring us a lot of money and they're absolutely vital to Crestwood. So they would be No. 2. My views would be next, such as they are, and then dragging at the bottom are the non-resident, special-interest views ...''

Alexander said, "... When you serve on the Board of Aldermen, you have a social responsibility, you wouldn't seek it to bring just your views to the city. In order to do this job and devote your time to it and spend the hours that we do on this job, you do it because you want to represent the people of your ward. It is just that simple. Now the businesses of this city, yes, they are important, too. My views are a distant third, and the non-residents, the only time I'd listen to them (is) if they came up with something that was honest and would really help the city — and I have not heard that yet.''

Miguel said, "... I think we're all in agreement that the residents of your ward come first. Certainly, I'm no exception to that. And we do need to be concerned about the viewpoint of the business people. Let me back up a second. After my ward's views, I think we need to inject the city's views and perhaps then the business views. I guess my views come in there somewhere ahead of the non-residents ...''

Himebaugh said, "I can echo everybody else's opinion so far. It's just the residents' views would come first and foremost. There's no doubt about it in anybody's mind. And business views are certainly second ... My views are almost not important because a representative of the people doesn't vote how he thinks it should be, he votes how the people think it should be. And as far as a non-resident, special-interest group, if they're not part of the business community and not part of the residents' community, I don't see how their view has any weight at all.''

Schlink said, "If we were voting on something important tonight, we'd all be in agreement on this one, I think. It's easy to say that the residents are going to be first. My views would be a distant third after the businessmen, but I think what I'll say differently is that even though I may place my views third on the list, I would hope that because I've been out talking to people, because I've been attending all of the meetings, because I answer my phone, because I solicit feedback, that my views wouldn't be that far off from what the residents' views are. I would think that that's my responsibility if I had the good fortune of serving the residents of Ward 2 and I think that that's very, very important that my views aren't different and that I may speak one way in certain settings, but then when I vote, I do it differently. I don't think that's the person that you want to ask to be representing you and I think that what I say is the same as what I would say in a small group or a large group, that I have nothing to hide and I don't have opposite agendas. And I would put the non-resident groups in a distant fourth, primarily because it's a distraction to what we're all trying to accomplish.''

Alexander, the only incumbent participating in the forum, was asked if she had voted to approve an $830-per-month car allowance for the city administrator. In exchange for the car allowance, the city no longer will provide an automobile to the administrator for his use, which included the city's paying for gas, insurance and maintenance.

Alexander said, "No, I did not. Myself and another member of the board (Breeding) voted against that ... My problem with it was that the way the calculation was figured, they took into account depreciation on a city-owned vehicle. Depreciation, it does happen, but it's a non-cash expense. The city isn't paying out depreciation. When they computed this $813- or $833-a-month car allowance, they included depreciation. I disagree with that strongly because we are paying cash for a non-cash expense.''

Miguel said, "Unfortunately, Alderman Alexander was unable to convince some of the other aldermen to her view. Eight-hundred-thirty dollars a month is an excessive automobile allowance and, in my opinion, the city administration will not have credibility until that goes away.''

Himebaugh said, "The answer I would have would be no, I wouldn't have voted for an $830 car allowance. I think it's excessive ...''

Schlink said, "Being the city administrator is kind of like being the CEO of a small company. There's a significant amount of money that comes in and out, there's a lot of decisions that need to be made, but it's not the same type of decisions that you would make as a CEO. You don't have the exact same responsibility. Therefore, you don't normally see the exact same pay packages in the private sector as you do in the public sector, and I think in hindsight, I think a lot of people — my guess is that some people might second guess what has been done up there. It does seem like a lot of money, especially when you look at the condition of the city — whether it's a dime more than you think it should be or $500 more than you think it should be, the fact is I think that a lot of people will agree that it was just a little bit too much, especially in light of the other publicity that we received.''

Kelleher said, "What can I add to that? I think I'm in agreement with my compadres up here ...''

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