Sunday, December 04, 2016

(2 of 2): It's been 600 days, and Bob Caesar and the city of New Albany continue to stonewall a legitimate request for Bicentennial Commission records. Can't someone just tell us about the books?

For a more comprehensive survey of what transpired in New Albany during the Bicentennial Year Zero End Times in 2013, go here.

(1 of 2): It has been 600 days since I asked Bob Caesar to show us the Bicentennial accounts, but at last, an entirely unsatisfactory answer has been proffered.

All we really wanted to know is how well those hired-gun Bicentennial books had sold, how many of the 5,000 (!) remained to be sold, and whether Redevelopment's loan was ever paid back. At the time, we were fairly gripped with mercenary gala nostalgia just thinking about it.

I've been trying to make sense of it ever since, and this brings us to the present.


It was almost exactly 600 days ago when I first asked Councilman (and former Bicentennial Commission chairman) Bob Caesar in public during city council speaking time to see the commission's records.

Specifically, I asked for information pertaining to the commission's showpiece bicentennial book: How much it cost, who paid the bill, how many were sold, and how many remain.

There were follow-up e-mails with Caesar, in one of which he voluntarily acknowledged having these records (below), as well as further public reminders during council meetings. However, the records were never produced.

Circa March 2016, after a year had passed, I brought it up again during a council meeting, and Caesar opted for open evasion. He claimed the records are available on-line (untrue then, as now), and then waved off my reminder by saying I could file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) public record request if I wished.

So I did.

The city's corporate attorney Shane Gibson promptly acknowledged receiving my request, provided an equally timely date for it to be honored, then ignored his own deadline, waiting 21 weeks to act. This prompted me to file a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor.

Last week (November 30), with the counselor's decision imminent, Gibson e-mailed me. He said I could have what he was willing to let me have (tax records and council meeting minutes, for the most part), but not what I specifically requested.

Here's the letter.

Following is the relevant text from Gibson's letter (above), in which he responds to my specific requests item by item. They're my original words from the initial request, with Gibson's replies underlined.

Requested Items:

Details should include all bids, contracts and expenditures for Bicentennial Commission activities, prime among them the process through with the Bicentennial book (“Historic New Albany, Indiana: By the River’s Edge,” by James Crutchfield) was contracted, published and sold, and the status of the Redevelopment Commission’s loan to make publication of this volume possible.

Response: The City does not possess the above referenced items.

As part of this request, I am requesting to know the current status of inventory with regard to these books. If books remain unsold, how many remain, and where are they stored? Also, when a Bicentennial book is given away at a public ceremony, who paid for it? These invoices are to be considered part of this request.

Response: The request for inventory is not a request for public records, however, the City does not possess any such document that details inventory. The City does not possess any of the other above referenced items.

As part of this request, I am further requesting copies of the official e-mail correspondence between Robert Caesar and other members of the Bicentennial Commission pertaining to these plans and transactions.

Response: The City does not possess the above referenced items.

Now, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Gibson would treat my information request in a spirit of spiteful nonchalance. It's what Team Gahan does.

At the same time, strictly speaking, he's probably telling the truth by means of carefully chosen words, and this is something I can at least appreciate. He says the city does not possess the referenced items, not that the referenced items do not exist. Presumably, someone else possesses them, and this certain someone undoubtedly is Caesar himself.

Because: Caesar previously admitted possessing them. Turning back the clock to June, 2015, here is my e-mail question to Caesar, followed by his reply.

Monday, June 08, 2015:
Do you recall a few weeks back, when I spoke a city council and expressed interest in learning about the state of the Bicentennial finances? Consider this my follow-up. So many things are happening that I let it slip, but I was (and remain) serious about seeing these numbers.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015:
None of the financials are on line. They are upstairs under a lot of stuff. I can tell you all bills are paid, and paid on time. All reporting to the state is done. And we did not use all of the city money. There was about 5 to 10K that stayed in the city funds.

That's right, folks.

Not on-line where the public might view them, and not even stored in an accessible public office, but "upstairs under a lot of stuff." Welcome to accountable governance, Nawbany-style.

To repeat, the records I've been requesting for over a year and a half, which detail the activities of a municipally-chartered body, one that by Caesar's own admission made use of at least a portion of taxpayer money to finance its activities, are not available at City Hall, where they should be filed, but "upstairs," perhaps in Caesar's attic, or (at the time) his former jewelry business.

That's incredible.

Consider also that by the spring of 2016, when Caesar sarcastically contended the commission's records were available on-line, he knew there was no way this assertion could be true, as it implied that someone attached to the city had taken the records from their resting place "Upstairs at Caesar's," except this surely didn't happen. If it did happen, and the records were transferred to City Hall to be scanned, why couldn't Gibson find them? What happened to them?

And so on, and so forth. Sadder still, there's no way of knowing if the records aren't currently taking up space in the landfill.

But bicentennial books definitely still exist. What about them?

At the time of the Bicentennial Commission's iron Luddite grip on the city's anniversary celebration, Caesar's own repeated public utterances suggested that 5,000 books were to be produced at a cost of $144,000 ($28 and change per book), and we know that seed money to accomplish this came from the Redevelopment Commission, following a farcical effort to extort money from the Southern Indiana Tourism Bureau.

In fact, Caesar told the council that profits from book sales would help pay for the cost of hiring an out-of-state-freelance writer and other publishing-related expenses. To put it gently, bountiful apocryphal evidence suggests that Caesar's dream scenario didn't come to fruition, which makes Gibson's reply last week even more potentially disingenuous.

Because: While the commission's records may not be within the city corporate attorney's possession, plenty of the books apparently remain in the city's loving reach, to be handed out by the mayor like Halloween candy at ribbon-cuttings and other civic events, as shown in this photo I took in 2015 at Underground Station. Look for the paving stone under the mayor's arm.

Gibson again: "The request for inventory (of books) is not a request for public records, however, the City does not possess any such document that details inventory. The City does not possess any of the other above referenced items."

If so, where is the mayor getting his many copies of the book?

Did he purchase them himself?

Are they stacked at his garage?

Shouldn't the Bicentennial Commission's records explain all this?

Shouldn't those records be available for public perusal, since public money was used to finance the bicentennial festivities?

Why can't just one of these persons -- any one of them, just take your pick -- man up, answer these questions and provide the requested records?

I know nothing will come of this, but by any measure of ethics as applied to elected officials, Bob Caesar's behavior in this instance merits censure by the city council. At the very least, perhaps other council members can help Caesar understand that when he has spent 600 days sidestepping what should be a simple information request, it makes the council look bad as a whole, as well as feeding suspicions that Caesar has something to hide.

Caesar is a self-styled budget hawk, constantly making references "for the record" about the grave necessity of paying close attention to the financials and accounting for every dime of public money.

Except when the jeweler fancies himself a publishing mogul. Below is the ordinance establishing Caesar's personal plaything commission.

§ 33.165 CREATION.
(A) There is hereby created the New Albany Bi-Centennial Commission.
(B) The membership of the Bi-Centennial Commission shall be composed of nine citizen members, five appointed by the Mayor and four appointed by the Common Council. The terms of office of the membership shall be for the period of time commencing with appointment and concluding at midnight on December 31, 2013. The Mayor and Common Council may remove and appoint its members at will.
(C) The mission of the Bi-Centennial Commission shall be to plan, coordinate and implement projects and events to celebrate the city’s bi-centennial. The Bi-Centennial Commission shall work with local citizens, businesses, organizations and institutions to accomplish its mission.
(D) The Bi-Centennial Commission shall adopt by-laws. These by-laws shall address such issues as meeting times and places, rules for the conduct of meetings, and other rules for the efficient operation of an advisory commission.
(E) The Bi-Centennial Commission shall appoint members to an advisory committee that it will work with to engage local citizens, businesses, organizations and institutions to accomplish its mission.
(Ord. G-09-06, passed 3-19-2009; Ord. G-12-01, passed 2-6-2012)

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