The BearCat and transparency in government

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Ken Hough was published in the Santa Maria Times on December 10, 2014:

At its Nov. 18 meeting, the Santa Maria City Council was asked to approve using $94,000 of Measure U funds to purchase an armored personnel carrier for the Police Department.

The council was informed that an anonymous private donor had contributed $135,000 for the purchase of the vehicle, known as a BearCat — an acronym standing for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck — and the Measure U money would round out the $229,000 cost. The City Council did not take specific action to accept the anonymous donation, only to augment the amount and authorize the vehicle purchase.

Who at the city has the authority to accept anonymous donations? Who at the city knows or needs to know the donor’s identity? What caused the donor to decide to give $135,000, and why anonymously?

From the staff report provided to the council, it seems the donation was made specifically to help buy a BearCat. Is a private donor setting city priorities?

The author of a recent letter to the editor brought up some good points, and there are many more we should consider. The Times’ editorial on Nov. 21 raised questions about police priorities, favoring community-policing programs over acquiring armor.

Two California cities — San Jose and Davis — recently decided to get rid of their armored vehicles. Those were military-surplus, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles. They are massive and designed to serve in war zones. They intimidate and alienate the people they are meant to protect, as did the ominous equipment used by Ferguson, Mo., police.

According to retired Santa Maria police Lt. Mike Cordero, our own police chief disposed of military-surplus Humvees, a half-track and a sniper rifle when he took over two years ago. Maybe Chief Martin sees the BearCat as a good middle ground, providing a greater degree of protection should it ever be needed, without overly militarizing our force.

Maybe one BearCat is good, or maybe not. Some people, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), have criticized "tank-like" BearCats for local police. This is a hot-button issue in communities across the country, and it warrants open discussion here.

It’s hard for a city to refuse a $135,000 donation, but it comes with significant costs. First, the $94,000 from Measure U, then additional expenses for upkeep, storage, repairs and personnel training for the BearCat. Could any or all of those funds be used for a better purpose? There needs to be more discussion about whether the city even needs a BearCat.

The main problem in this case is a lack of open discussion about the best use of limited resources, and any unintended consequences. Surely the donor meant to be helpful, but those who are in the position to accept the money should have taken and held the position that being open and transparent with funds is a principle the city follows at all times.

When that much money is given anonymously, people wonder why. Although the donor may not have been trying to buy influence, people are likely to wonder whether a contractor was the anonymous donor when they are awarded a big job, or if a developer was the donor when receiving a favorable change in their zoning or plans.

Undoubtedly, the donor would have respected the principle of openness and could have decided whether or not to give the funds publicly. But even if we did not get the funds, wouldn’t it be better for the public to know our staff and elected officials stand on the principle of transparency in all their decisions?