Transparency and accountability are two overused words in our American lexicon as it relates to government. Perhaps those words are worn out and hackneyed because we so thirst for them both from our elected and appointed leaders and alas, emerge parched and disappointed from that thirst. After taking an exhausting spin on a merry-go-round of obfuscation related to the town’s ownership and the ongoing management of our town-owned golf course, boy am I thirsty!
The Town of Falmouth acquired the Falmouth Country Club and significant surrounding open space more than a decade ago with wide community support and a wide array of funds. The surrounding acreage was rightfully touted as an environmentally sound purchase, usable as both much-needed and somewhat scare open space in that part of town, and potentially as land available as part of the town’s overall strategy for wastewater treatment. It was a true community coalition – from open space advocates to golf enthusiasts, that rallied the community to support the funding necessary to preserve this jewel of East Falmouth from potential development.
When the original Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued for management of this multi-million dollar asset back in 2004, eight companies expressed an interest in helping the town get into the golf business. After a thorough and open process, Billy Casper Golf was chosen, and they have been running one of the town’s most valuable properties since. Casper operated the course under a five-year lease with an option for an additional five year term. They have done an admirable job and have been good stewards of the land and the course. Greens keeper and Course Superintendent Bucky Hall, who is widely regarded as one of the top experts in the business, has been at FCC for more than thirty years and has continued to be a stabilizing professional presence; he has cared for the turf like it was his own lawn. The original lease signed by the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager in 2005 laid out the terms of the agreement, including a base lease payment and a revenue sharing agreement if revenues exceeded thresholds agreed to by the town and Casper. The Town also established a Golf Advisory Committee to provide advisory oversight to the Board and the Town, providing direct citizen representation to the operation of the course.
Having been a signatory to the original lease as a member of the Board of Selectmen, I understood these facts and planned to write a column on Casper’s able stewardship of the course and the process by which the town would choose a new operator for the next lease term, or renew with Casper. Either option requires another RFP and a formal process to maintain compliance with bidding laws.
Since the first process was open and transparent, I had every confidence that this updated version would follow a similar path, and my ongoing thirst for transparency would be satisfied. I sent a note to the Town Manager’s office letting them know that I was writing a column on the Falmouth Country Club, and I asked for some basic information on its operation, including copies of the current lease, minutes from the Golf Advisory Committee, and easily obtainable financial reports to look at the revenues the town received under the current lease.
My thirst began to develop and my concern began to rise when I received a terse reply that my information request (filed under the public records law as a simple matter of course) would be fulfilled after a calculation was made on the time and value of research and reproduction were calculated. Now, to make it clear, the town was well within its legal rights to charge me more than $60.00 for documents it had readily available because it was currently working on a renewal of the RFP, but it stretches the bounds of credulity to think that such a brush-off is consistent with transparent government. I wasn’t asking for obscure information that would have to be dug out of the archives. I asked for stuff that probably sat on a desk ready for distribution to interested management companies.
Nonetheless, I paid my sixty bucks and pored over the information – and my anxiety grew due to the lack of information actually provided. I learned that the five year extension to the lease, signed in January of 2010 – after the financial markets crashed and after rounds of golf began to decline precipitously in the region – included an increase in the ceiling for revenue sharing, virtually guaranteeing that the town would lose money for the entire second term of the lease. As a municipal finance professional, I figured I could look at the accounting reports I requested and perhaps understand the thinking behind this decision that set up the town for financial failure. Unfortunately, the reports provided by the Finance Department, which was supposed to be the public’s link to a deeper understanding of our dollars and cents, showed little more than dollars and made no sense. The revenue numbers in the report didn’t match the revenue numbers in the town’s lease, and no one took the time to explain it, knowing that the information provided would be the subject of a newspaper column. My now burgeoning unease was matched only by my frustration at the lack of meaningful information and my sadness that the great work of Casper is being overshadowed by the town’s unwillingness – or inability – to be straight with the people it serves.
Now starving for information and nearly dehydrated by my thirst for transparency, I turned to the requested minutes of the Golf Advisory Committee, figuring maybe there was some discussion at those meetings that could shed some light on the darkness coming from the town’s highest offices. Alas, the darkness continued and my dismay flourished when it was revealed that virtually no minutes exist for years and years of meetings and deliberations for this important oversight committee. Only after the lack of official records was brought to the town’s attention recently were minutes routinely taken.
A lease renewal that locked in financial losses. Financial reports that provided no useful information. Obfuscation from Town Hall. Missing and non-existent minutes. What is one to think? I think I’m pretty thirsty.
The new RFP for the new lease term was due last week. Only one company responded – Billy Casper. It’s no surprise. I’m sure other potential vendors got the same treatment I did.