On Sept. 26 — just five days before the start of the 2018 fiscal year — the Oxford City Council approved a $45.2 million annual budget.
In the weeks leading up to its passage, the details of the budget were hidden from the public. In fact, a draft of the 2018 budget wasn’t made available until the evening it came up for a vote.
Other cities in Calhoun County make sure the public is included in how budgets are shaped. Many weeks before the Oct. 1 deadline, draft budgets are shared for anyone who is interested. Residents weigh in on spending proposals in open forums.
It is a good example for Oxford to follow.
Aimee Birchfield, Oxford’s finance director, claimed the city wasn’t required to disclose budget drafts that had been shared with members of the City Council. She leaned on an overly broad reading of an Alabama attorney general’s opinion concerning internal communications among staff at the state Department of Revenue.
Of course, an AG’s opinion can’t rewrite the state’s Open Records Act and its provisions ensuring the public can see how a city is spending taxpayer dollars. Every citizen “has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state,” reads the law. It really can’t made be more clear.
In a case involving the city Millbrook’s attempt to cut the public out of the public’s business, a circuit court judge ruled, “Public officials have no greater right of access to public writings than other members of the public.”
Why were Oxford residents cut out of the deliberation process for how the city will spend their tax money? That’s a good question, one that the Oxford elected leadership and staff should answer if they wish to repair broken trust.