City Spends Almost $20K to Obtain Citizens’ Ideas on Budget Cuts and Taxes

Wednesday, March 28, 2018, 7:13 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Results of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by ELi show that the City of East Lansing is paying Public Sector Consultants $19,478 for work the private firm has conducted to obtain citizens’ ideas about where the City might cut its budget and obtain new revenues.

The work performed by Public Sector Consultants [PSC] included three “public engagement” sessions at the Hannah Community Center and two online surveys. According to PSC’s report, “PSC was not responsible for creating any meeting content – we merely synthesized and edited content provided by City staff and the City Council.” Public Sector Consultants provided written reports to the City. FOIA shows drafts of the PSC reporting were revised following feedback from City personnel.

The first report on citizens’ input on budget priorities has been posted at Public Sector Consultants’ website and is linked through the City of East Lansing’s website. The report includes aggregated statistical data from quantitative questions presented at the two January public sessions and in the first online survey.

That online survey, which obtained 794 responses, also had a qualitative, open-ended question asking for general feedback. It asked: “Do you have any other comments or suggestions to share with the City about its budget priorities?”

None of the answers to that question have been made public. That open-ended feedback from citizens also does not show up in FOIA results, meaning the City has not received citizens’ answers to the open-ended question.

Asked why this is, Rory Neuner of Public Sector Consultants told me her company provided information about the hundreds of qualitative comments “orally” to the City.

Asked about this two days ago, City Manager George Lahanas did not respond, but his assistant, Eilis Seide did. Following ELi's inquiries, Seide said that office has now asked Public Sector Consultants to “compile a list of comments without identifiers (anonymity for public consumption) for the City and Council to review….We will provide it to Council as soon as it is received.”

Public Sector Consultants used MailChimp for the surveys, an online service which requires about three clicks to download complete, de-identified survey responses.

ELi also asked City Councilmembers by email on Tuesday whether they knew why the full data set, including citizens’ qualitative comments, had not been provided to the City in writing. We asked whether this might have been done to avoid the complete responses being available via FOIA or whether there might be some other reason.

Only Aaron Stephens responded, saying, “I'm pushing to have that available. Obviously I heard from people at the events and I'm sure you have too but I definitely want to hear all the other ideas people had.” Stephens has been advocating for more local government transparency at City Council meetings.

Stephens was also the only Councilmember to answer a question about whether the work by Public Sector Consultants was a good value for the City. He replied:

I believe the input sought was vital for us to move forward with either cuts, revenue or both. Honestly I'm hoping we do a lot more reaching out to the community. Sometimes when we hold a public hearing maybe only a few people show up but with the surveys we did we had hundreds of responses so I really do think it was beneficial (although I'd be happy if hundreds showed up to our meetings too). I'm planning on holding more coffee hours at no expense to the city as well to get more input.”

Council did not specifically vote on whether to make this expenditure, so the decision to make the expenditure appears to have been that of City Manager George Lahanas. At their meetings, in discussions of budgets and possible new tax proposals, Councilmembers did encourage Lahanas to hold the meetings and have the online surveys conducted.

The meetings and surveys represented a self-selected sample of citizens, and can therefore not be assumed to be representative of the voting public of East Lansing.

 

Related materials:

Public Sector Consultants’ final report on the January sessions and January survey

Draft (obtained by FOIA) of Public Sector Consultant’s report on the January work

Public Sector Consultants' proposal for work

Invoices from Public Sector Sector Consultants to City of East Lansing on budget and tax input

Public Sector Consultants' final report on the February session and survey

ELi’s report on the January 10 public engagement session

ELi’s report on the January 18 public engagement session

ELi’s report on the February 22 public engagement session