By Dan Schroeder
This month marks the third anniversary of an audacious fraud carried out by the Ogden City administration, paid for by Ogden City taxpayers.
In July 2007, the administration published and mailed a utility bill insert with an article loudly proclaiming that The Junction was “a good investment”. That’s a matter of opinion, of course, but the article based its claim on a fraudulent statement of the facts.
The article said the city’s “original investment” in The Junction was merely the $6 million purchase price for the property, never mentioning the additional costs of tearing down the old mall, building the Salomon Center, and so on. In fact, the city had to borrow nearly $40 million to finance The Junction, and will eventually have to pay back all of that, plus interest.
The article also “projected” that The Junction would generate over $2 million in property tax during 2007, when in fact it generated less than $150,000. This factor-of-14 error was not mere over-optimism. By July 2007 the assessed values of all the Junction parcels were known, and the actual 2007 property tax could easily have been calculated.
Finally, the article projected more than $3.2 million in Junction property tax for 2010. The actual property tax this year will be very close to $1 million. Basically, the article’s unnamed author assumed that the two undeveloped parcels at The Junction would each end up being worth as much as all the rest of The Junction put together. Even in the best economic times, that never would have happened.
A similar article making some of the same outrageous claims was published as a taxpayer-funded advertisement in the Standard-Examiner on May 31, 2007.
Again, whether The Junction is actually a good investment is a matter of opinion. Perhaps it has increased the values of nearby properties, or perhaps its intangible benefits outweigh its high cost. But the numbers that the administration used to make its case were fraudulent.
Unfortunately, this is not the only example of the administration’s use of publicly funded communications to deceive citizens.
Just two months later, in September 2007, the administration published a utility bill insert claiming that Ogden’s violent crime rate had decreased 43% between 1999 and 2006. The same claim appeared in a taxpayer-funded Standard-Examiner advertisement on August 30. When the state and federal governments later published statistics that were supposedly based on the same data, they showed no significant change in the violent crime rate.
We eventually learned the reasons for the discrepancy. First, the administration was inflating the 1999 crime rate by using an absurdly low population estimate, left over from the 1990 census. And second, the administration had inexplicably stopped including some categories of crimes in the statistics starting in 2005, even though those categories were included through 2004.
It can hardly be a coincidence that all of these dishonest communications appeared during Mayor Godfrey’s 2007 reelection campaign. And in fact, some of the same deceptions were copied directly into the mayor’s campaign mailings. Sadly, Americans have grown accustomed to politicians telling lies in campaign advertisements. But it’s a much bigger problem when they spend public tax dollars to broadcast those lies on the government’s behalf.
During the 2009 election season we saw more inappropriate uses of taxpayer-funded communications for electioneering. First the administration used the city’s public web site to prominently broadcast a verbal attack by the mayor on an incumbent City Council member who was running for reelection. Then the mayor’s office attempted to use Channel 17 to dictate the time, place, and format of a series of debates between City Council candidates.
State and local laws prohibit government officials from using public resources for political purposes. Whether these laws apply to the cases I’ve described, however, is probably open to interpretation. It’s up to the city attorney to interpret such laws, and the city attorney answers to the mayor. In fact, Ogden’s city attorney has repeatedly interpreted these very same laws to the mayor’s advantage, and to the disadvantage of his opponents.
Could the laws be clarified to reduce the city attorney’s discretion? Perhaps this type of abuse will eventually get the Utah Legislature’s attention, but I’m not holding my breath.
A better law at the local level might seem easier, but it may not be. Ogden’s City Council has adopted procedures that make it virtually impossible to pass an ordinance without the blessing of the city attorney. Again, the city attorney answers to the mayor.
The 2011 campaign season is now only a year away. If we want better laws, now is the time to pass them--before we know who the candidates will be. I hope the Ogden City Council will make this issue a priority and crack down on the unethical use of taxpayer-funded communications.
Addendum: This commentary was submitted to the Standard-Examiner earlier this month. A few days later I received a response from editorial page editor Doug Gibson indicating that it would not be published, but inviting me to submit a much shorter version as a letter to the editor. In response to a further inquiry, Mr. Gibson explained: “I don’t think the topic is fresh enough. It has been rehashed many times, including on your blog.”
How are we to interpret Mr. Gibson’s explanation? True, the topics in my commentary have been discussed many times here on Weber County Forum, and even mentioned in passing on my personal blog. But the majority of this content has never been mentioned at all in the Standard-Examiner. Are we to understand that thoroughly discussing a topic on a blog disqualifies that topic from being discussed in any detail in the local newspaper? That seems to be what Mr. Gibson is saying.
But I don’t think he’s telling the whole truth. Before 2007, the Standard-Examiner printed every guest commentary I submitted (I think there were about four). Yet during the last three years I’ve submitted seven guest commentaries, and they’ve rejected all but two. The two that they printed steered clear of any direct statements about Mayor Godfrey; the five that they rejected all pointed out facts about the mayor that the Standard-Examiner has downplayed or ignored.
Added Addendum: Now that the 2010 property assessments are available, here’s an updated version of the Junction property tax graph that I published last year: