Well, that's a fine how do you do.

One could say that it was a banner day for "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." But wait, I'm being facetious. And presumptuous.

Because I am assuming you are all familiar with the whole sordid story of my long, drawn out efforts to obtain the documentary basis for the coal plant transaction. While you can certainly read all about it below, for those of you operating under time constraints I intend to give a brief summary.

Never one for suspense, though, I will first tell you that my efforts were, in a word, "declined." What a nice, lawyerly way to tell someone to take a flying leap.

My interest really started when I read a December 9, 2006, guest editorial in the Tribune by Mr. Lawrence Rezentes. I wrote my first post on it on December 11. Mr. Rezentes raised several questions about the finances of the coal plant. I began looking into the financial and legal structure of the City's relationship with Electric City Power and Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission. I found that, while much was said and written about this transaction, I could not locate much in terms of the actual documents from which I could determine the nature of the relationships and the anticipated future operation of the power plant.

Since this is the abbreviated version, I'll jump forward to my first formal effort to obtain information from the City of Great Falls. I wrote to the Executive Director of Electric City Power, Coleen Balzarini. My letter included the following:

I note that we first began requesting this information from your office on approximately December 11, 2006. My paralegal spoke with a representative of your staff on December 14, 2006, and was told we would be called when the documents were ready for us. She spoke with the representative again the following day, and was informed that it would take a while since all of the information was not contained in a central file or location. To date we have not heard from any representative of your office.

Specifically, we would like to obtain, at your earliest convenience, the following documents. If they are extremely voluminous, please advise and we will inspect them prior to copying:

· All organizational documents for Electric City Power, including financial documents showing capitalization.

· All contracts or other documentation of the relationship between ECP and other utility members of SME.

· All contracts between SME and individuals for services.

· Documents demonstrating the flow of money between the City of Great Falls and ECP and SME, as well as between ECP and SME.

· Any and all agreements, memoranda, etc., between the City of Great Falls and ECP and SME, as well as between ECP and SME including, but not limited to, all documents evidencing any joint venture or other ownership interest between or in ECP and/or SME.

· Any and all construction estimate document cover sheets and correspondence.

· All feasibility studies including, but not limited to, the one authorized by the City of Great Falls in the Commission Meeting on November 4, 2003.

In response, I received a packet of information from the City Clerk, Peggy Bourne, along with the following letter (or click here and here):

Of particular interest is paragraph 3 of Ms. Bourne's letter. In that paragraph she states that the City does not have the feasibility study for which the City paid its share of roughly $23,000.00, but does note that "staff was briefed on the results of this study." She suggested that I contact Mr. Tim Gregori at SME to obtain the study.

So I did. I wrote to Mr. Gregori first on January 29, 2007, and again on February 14, 2007. I stated:

I would like to obtain a copy of the “feasibility study” referenced in the City Commission minutes of November 4, 2003. As I previously noted, City staff suggested that I obtain this document from you. I would like you to also provide me with all documents evidencing the City’s ownership interest in SME, documents containing the terms of the City’s ownership interest, and documents dictating the governance of the Cooperative, including any operating plan. I am also hoping to obtain financial records documenting capital contributions and member ownership interests. Apparently these are not in the City’s possession.

Mr. Gregori was, apparently, unimpressed with my efforts towards becoming an informed citizen. Today I received the following letter from SME's lawyer (or click here):



The government of my hometown plans to spend over 128 million dollars on a coal plant, but I guess that the financial records, operating plans and feasibility studies are just none of my business. Sheesh. How did I not know that? My request is "declined." Um, well, maybe I'll go start a sports blog or something.

Uh-huh. Don't you sometimes just want to pop a slice of "what the hell is going on around here" out of the toaster? I do.

Let's start with the condescendingly quoted "feasibility" study. First of all, I hope that this attorney understands he is quoting John Lawton, and not me. Ok, Mr. McCarter, I went to the SME website, right where you directed me. There are seven, count 'em, seven studies referenced there: Site Selection Study, Site Screening Study, Alternative Evaluation Study, (Part 1, Part 2), Railroad Route Alternatives Summary, Raw Water Supply Summary, T-Line Description, and the Waste Disposal Plan Summary. The Site Selection Study, all 234 pages of it, contains 3 instances of the word feasibility. The Waste Disposal Plan Summary contains 1 instance of the word feasibility. The rest of the studies referenced by Mr. McCarter do not even contain the word "feasibility."

So, where is the feasibility study that the City of Great Falls paid $23,000.00 for, and that "staff was briefed on?" Seriously, where is it? Something isn't right here.

Mr. McCarter next tries to tell me that 6 public entities can form a new entity, and thereafter all of the workings of the new entity are insulated from public review? While I question the validity of such an assertion, let's stop and think for a moment. Do we want our City to invest money into an entity that asserts privacy rights over its inner workings? Are you comfortable dumping your share of 128,000,000.00 into such a black hole?

This whole thing didn't start out as some sort of crusade, believe me. I have other things to do. But this is getting freakin' ridiculous. This is no longer about a coal plant; it is about governance. From the very beginning I have been asking very basic questions about the entities involved in this transaction, the finances of this transaction, and the ultimate operation of the proposed utility. The Mayor has commented that my inquiries are legitimate.

My request is "declined?"


david said...

Somebody in these organizations just doesn't get it...whether the coal plant is a good thing or not, their stonewalling will NOT help them advance their cause, and is exactly the kind of attitude that may bring their project to a screeching halt.

ajtooley said...

Indeed. I would be generally in favor of this or another energy-generation proposal, but the continued and obvious contempt for peoples' desire to make an informed decision --or their right to make a decision at all!-- is rapidly turning me into an opponent.

Fred said...

One or more of these governmental entities should be subject to the FOIA. If the city staff, and by extension, their business partners, in their complacence, feels immune and disdainful to such requests, perhaps one of the other governmental units would be an easier target to compel disclosure of the documents. Their obligation under the FOIA may be more clear cut. If that works, the precedent could be used as an argument against any further obfuscation and delay by the city to fess up to the financial realities of the project. I'm inclined to support the plant but not inclined to tolerate stonewalling by those who purport to be looking out for my best interests.

free thought said...

I'd like to see the sports blog. But keep bugging them anyway. Maybe enough will be enough for the tax payers soon, and we can cut our losses.

Hawkeye said...

Hell hath no fury...
Ok, we are ready for the initiative or the lawsuit or both.