Let’s talk about vouchers for a few minutes. What are vouchers? They are the bills the City has to pay. The City Council votes to approve these payments as part of the Consent Agenda generally once a month.
Vouchers are one of the most important parts of running a City. And in Des Moines, they’re kinda like the sewer system of City Government. They’re absolutely essential, but we almost never see them. But we should.
Now as I just wrote, vouchers are on the Consent Agenda, which, as I’ve written about before is an up or down vote on items that are considered totally routine and thus do not require discussion. In every other City, the vouchers are presented as part of the City Council Packet. The public (that would be you) can inspect them and then, if you found something hinky (do people use that word here?) you could comment on it. Because after all, it’s public money. It’s your tax dollars. And it’s usually around $2,000,000 that never gets talked about.
Because in Des Moines, the list of vouchers are not made public. That list of $2,000,000 in payments is sent only to Councilmembers. They aren’t even published on the City’s web site! Frankly, I doubt my colleagues even read them. That may sound unkind, but in all the years I’ve been watching Des Moines City Council meetings I have never seen a Councilmember ask a question about any voucher. (Except for moi, of course.) Maybe they ask questions in private. But that’s bad in another kind of way. More on that later.
Why should you care?
Now: what can you find on those vouchers and why should you care? Well, it’s every bill the City pays in detail. So, if you wanna know how much employees get paid? It’s right there. If you wanna know what companies the City does business with and how much they’re paid? It’s there. You can learn a lot by studying somebody’s checkbook.
Now, like many of you I used to run a business. We all sign batches of checks. And in my case, the bookkeeper would bring me the stack of checks to sign and the invoices they were paying for. Which is normal, right?
But we don’t do that in Des Moines. In Des Moines, the City Council sees the list of payments, but not the underlying invoices we are being asked to sign off on. A Councilmember such as myself has to ask to see these. I literally have to ask permission to see the invoices I’m being asked to approve.
OK, I see you getting nervous.
I gotta stop for a second to calm your nerves, dear reader. I want to reassure you that State law protects me from any harm from approving bogus or even harmful expenditures. We might approve spending that is not only wasteful, but even dangerous or downright illegal, but fortunately, your electeds are not subject to any consequences. So who cares if I examine the bills or not, right? Whew! I know you feel better. I certainly do. 😀
In other Cities they do what I used to do–they give Councilmembers not only the bills to be paid, but also the underlying invoices for review. That way the approver can provide oversight. And the reason I’m so skeptical that my colleagues bother to read the vouchers is this: In all the years I ran my business, I can’t think of a check signing session where I didn’t question at least one bill. When you read through a bunch of bills to pay, you will have one or two routine questions.
Now, what I often do after I read the vouchers, I pick up the phone and call a Councilmember in another City and I say, “Hey *Phyllis. How much are you guys paying for xxx?” And if Phyllis gives me a number that’s 30% lower than what I see? I get upset and make a note of it. But if she gives me a number that’s 30% higher than what I see? I say, “Thanks, Phyllis.” and hang up. (I’m keeeeeding. In that case, I would gently let her know she might wanna look at that. I’m not that big a jerk.)
Check this metaphor
As I said, vouchers are like the sewer system. It’s another one of those tiny, boring details that you just have to have working smoothly. But in Des Moines, it also kinda stinks. (See what I did there? That’s world class comedy, right? 😀 )
What to do…
This is another issue of transparency where we are pretty much dead last in. And I keep hammering on about the City’s web site because this is another issue that would be trivial to fix but would do wonders for public engagement.
- We should make the vouchers apart of the packet so that you, the public can weight in on any payment the City makes.
- We should automatically provide the invoices to be paid to Councilmembers. There should be no need to ask.
- We should create a culture where the Council can freely ask questions about any payment ahead of the City Council Meetings. I’ve talked about a Councilmember Information Request many times and this is yet another reason to implement this. Councilmembers should all be able to share information about the bills we’re paying.
The practical benefits…
As I’ve mentioned, my company used to write financial management software. Improving accounting processes for organizations was my job. And I can tell you one very simple fact: One of the best ways to reduce costs is to enable more eyes to be able to see the expenditures. The more people that can see what’s being paid, the easier it is to control spending. Duuuuh.
I have been reading the vouchers for the past year. And let me tell you, Sonny Jim, as soon as I have the votes, there will be some changes to this process.
*Phyllis is, as they say in Hollywood, a composite character. 😀