Township Supervisor: 'I Want People to Know Where Their Money is Going'

Oakland Township fostering new era of open government

Politicians often say they’re committed to opening up the community checkbook so taxpayers can see how their money is spent. And they promise it will be easy for the public to see how decisions are made and why.

In practice, however, it doesn’t often happen that way.

The excuses are endless:

“We don’t have the money to do that.”

“We don’t have the expertise to do that.”

“We don’t have the technology to make that happen.”

Terry Gonser

“The legal department said we can’t talk about that.”

Of course there are exceptions and there are legislators and local politicians who value their commitment to public service and understand they work for the people, not the machine that is politics.

Count Terry Gonser among them.

The new supervisor of Oakland Township isn’t wasting time — though he is ruffling some feathers — in moving the community of roughly 17,000 people in northern Oakland County toward a government that puts documents online instead of behind locked doors and opening up the government to benefit taxpayers.

“I want people to have a say in their government and know where their money is going,” he told me recently.

Sure, you say, but we’ve heard all that before. Only Gonser is actually doing something about it.

Residents who have registered to use the community’s website can access the board of trustee packets including drafts of meeting minutes; they can keep an eye on the township’s checkbook, which is updated online monthly; and the bid process for services is posted online, too.

Board of trustee meetings are televised. So are planning commission meetings, parks and recreation meetings, historic district commission meetings and the zoning board of appeals. Previously, Gonser said residents who couldn’t attend were out of luck because nothing was televised.

“Now I get emails from residents who say, ‘Hey, Oakland Township is international … I’m watching you in Mexico,” he said of the reaction he got from a vacationing resident shortly after contracting with a company that records and produces the videos for the township website.

Of course, with that transparency comes some conflict.

A blog has popped up that questions and complains about Gonser and his colleagues who replaced some longtime board members and other former public officials. The blog’s writers don’t like the direction the township is heading and have used the Internet to try and sway public opinion against Gonser’s efforts.

That’s politics.

But it also exposes the beauty of technology. Residents can decide if the 30-second video clips posted on the blog are more meaningful than the 260-plus minute full meeting videos posted on the township’s website.

And if they’re still not satisfied, they can link directly to a Freedom of Information Act request form on the homepage of the community website to get even more information on what’s happening in government.

But that doesn't come without some costs. Gonser said a FOIA request from a former trustee has cost residents between $8,000 and $10,000 to comply with a document request that resulted in about 9,000 pages.

Talking about the costs makes Gonser grimace. That money would be better spent putting more documents online or streamlining departmental bureaucracy, he said, before quickly pointing out that all residents have a right to the information, even if costly.

The retired General Motors engineering group manager said he knows the changes aren’t easy for some, but in the end they will benefit everyone.

Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear Gonser talk about private property rights, constitutional conservatism and limited government. Not to mention his concern for residents’ tax dollars.

“At General Motors you didn’t spend all of your money and go to your boss and tell him you needed more money,” Gonser said. “That’s not the way it works in business and that’s not how it should work in government either."

Sounds like a new township motto to me.