By HEATHER TOMLINSON
Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler said Monday that the city had responded to an open records request submitted by a consultant for a local group looking into merged governments — but he had some harsh words in the process.
“It wasn’t something I brought up, it wasn’t something that should’ve been brought up,” said Girdler during Monday evening’s Somerset City Council meeting.
Girdler said he discovered on Sunday via a Commonwealth Journal article that Luke B. Schmidt, president of L.B. Schmidt and Associates and the consultant for the Somerset-Pulaski County United, had submitted an open records request requesting details on the organization of the city’s government and its financial data, tax structure and revenue sources.
Schmidt was quoted as saying that he expected to get the information because “ ... he (Girdler) is bound by law to provide that.”
Girdler took issue with that, stating that open records requests aren’t even his office’s responsibility. As per law, all requests for public records are funneled through the city clerk’s office, who is the “custodian of all public records.” Somerset City Clerk David Godsey handles all open records requests.
“It appears in the paper that I’m the culprit, that he (Schmidt) can’t get any cooperation out of me, it appears he doesn’t even know the rules,” said Girdler. “It’s not my responsibility nor my authority to give him information.”
Girdler has been strongly opposed to an effort by SPCU to look into the possible benefits of a merged government between the county and city. Somerset City Council, agreeing with Girdler’s position, earlier this year declined to hear any statements from the group, made up of a number of local business leaders in the community and chaired by developer Brook Ping.
“If the city council has already voted ... and made clear the issue is not something of concern to the city, then why is Somerset even being discussed?” Girdler asked the council on Monday. “Don’t they respect your decision as city council? ... This should not be an issue for Somerset.”
Girdler said the city received Schmidt’s request on Thursday, Aug. 8. State law affords governmental entities three full business days to initially respond — and by initially respond that may mean a statement acknowledging receipt of the request and assurance that the request is in the process of being carried out.
Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese spent Monday afternoon drafting the response. But she emphasized during Monday’s meeting that everything Schmidt requested was available on the city’s website.
“Every single thing they requested was on our website,” said Wiese. “All they had to do was get on our website and find it themselves.”
Girdler said the city has no problem providing public records, but he said Somerset’s financials shouldn’t even come into play because the city has opted out of the study.
“ ... Why are they continuing to harass Somerset?” Girdler asked during Monday’s meeting. “I don’t understand it. The only reason I can come up (with) ... is that he (Schmidt) will use the voters to punish you all and punish me for failure to work with him.”
The City of Ferguson has also opted out of the study, which costs around $35,000.
The $35,000 was initially suggested to be paid with a third of the money from Somerset, a third from Pulaski County government and a third to be paid by Somerset-Pulaski County United members. Somerset officials declined to provide any funds for the study, but Pulaski County Fiscal Court granted $11,667 to pay its share of the cost of the study. Two-thirds of the cost apparently will be paid with contributions from members of Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU).
The completed study, if favorable toward a unified city-county government, would be presented to local governmental bodies. Eubank, because its corporate limits straddles the Pulaski-Lincoln county line, would not be eligible to be a part of a merged city-county government, according to state law.
“I don’t like it, I will not approve, as long as I’m mayor, let them forget about the study, take it out on me politically, and move on,” said Girdler on Monday.
Girdler said he and other city officials have their hands full with a number of projects as part of the city’s annual $66 million budget. Somerset owns its own natural gas line system, and it recently completed a bulk fuel plant, which is now in operation. The city is also carrying out plans to construct a $12 million energy center, to be located in downtown Somerset, and it operates a sewer plant and a water plant.
“When they say we’re not being cooperative ... we really don’t have time,” said Girdler. “What else can we do? Why should you as council be badmouthed? It’s common knowledge that they’ve said they’re going to get the mayor and the council if they don’t support this group.
“ ... Leave us alone, let us do our job,” Girdler later added.
Councilor Mike New said he felt the city has contributed its fair share to the county simply through its sewer and water plants — and through recreational activities such as organized soccer leagues and baseball leagues.
Girdler said around 75 percent of children who participate in soccer are from outside the city limits, and Councilor Jim Rutherford added that around 80 percent of Somerset Family Fitness Center customers are from the county.
SFFC is owned by the city.
But Girdler was quick to emphasize that he doesn’t feel the public is behind the study.
“I don’t think it’s the people ... the county people know that, they don’t want this stuff ... I don’t know what’s going on,” said Girdler. “The people like what we’re doing.”
Councilor John Ricky Minton suggested that the SPCU group may be smaller than the more than 80 members on the list. Minton said he’s been approached by several people who stated they didn’t agree to be on the group list, but found their names there anyway.
Girdler said Wiese may draft an open records request to SPCU seeking information on the group’s organizational structure and other details. He said the group accepted money from a governmental entity and thus should have to respond.
“I don’t think they have any other choice than to give it to us,” said Girdler.
Councilor Jimmy Eastham stated during Monday’s meeting that he voted against participating in the study because his constituents felt it wasn’t in the best interest of Somerset.
“Essentially, we voted on the wishes of the people,” said Eastham.
Rutherford said he hadn’t seen any strong public reaction to the city’s decision to not participate.
“There’s not a groundswell of public outrage that we’re not participating,” said Rutherford. “To the voters in the city, and the voters in the county, it’s a non-issue because they’re not interested. But the group (SPCU) is.”