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Our View: Is public best served before, after financial record audits?

Citizens have a right to know what the City of Durango is doing financially. That’s a given. The timely question, though, is whether the public is best served when financial records are released before draft figures are finalized, causing confusion and chaos? Or after an audit when numbers are confirmed? Which numbers are more telling?

The answer depends on whom you’re asking. Durango resident John Simpson recently filed a lawsuit against City Clerk Faye Harmer, claiming he was wrongly denied financial records on the city’s lodgers tax collections in 2021.

Simpson said Durango City Council and Harmer denied his open records request, saying the financial statement was a “work product” and not covered by the Colorado Open Records Act.

On Thursday, the city released its 2021 annual comprehensive report after the audit was completed. Both sides would welcome a court ruling on how to proceed in the future.

We would, too. It’s a classic case of a citizen’s right to know versus when a request – or multiple requests – encumbers a municipality to do its job well, indirectly affecting other citizens.

“People should have an idea of how much money the city has in the bank and if they need this lodgers tax,” Simpson said. “The city has shown it doesn’t have a good plan. It’s a poor way to do municipal business.

“Similarly, the City Council has a duty to watch the city staff and verify when they say they need this money.”

First, the bank account. It makes more sense to see a final balance after transactions are reconciled so the city – and its citizens – can make better decisions. And this amount is separate and irrelevant from the windfall of the lodgers tax revenue, and whether that revenue should fund something like housing.

Next, former City Finance Director Julie Brown’s embezzlement case and the stolen $700,000. It’s tough to get out from under that dark cloud, despite the city’s gains in financial reporting.

Tom Sluis, City of Durango spokesman, said: the city “provides a constant, daily stream of unaudited financial data to the public via Opengov, while making sure the official record of the city’s finances at the end of the year are released only after an external auditor has finished their work. This provides the accuracy and transparency the public deserve, while preventing misinformation that only clouds the deliberative process.”

And unfettered access to all records, all employees all the time won’t work. As a taxpayer, it could be argued that Simpson is looking out for his money. But what if 20 people behind him wanted this info, too? Or 200? Or 2,000?

Citizens elsewhere have weaponized CORA requests, burying clerks in forms. We’re not saying Simpson did this. But MyPillow guy Mike Lindell did. Lindell told crowds to make continual requests, overwhelming election offices. Some didn’t know why. Just that Lindell sent them.

City taxes support all things municipal. But we can’t walk into a city building at midnight, spread a blanket and have a picnic. We can’t walk into any office and hover over staff members. We endure some restraints.

Before the audit was completed, we asked Simpson what he hoped to uncover. “Hopefully, nothing,” he said.

Citizens deserve disclosure, whether they’re suspicious or just curious or see politics in financial decisions. But there’s a line. We just don’t know exactly where it is. And we hope the court makes that line very clear.