In recognition of Sunshine Week, The Durango Herald asked three municipalities, three school districts, La Plata County government and Fort Lewis College to provide purchasing invoices, credit card payments and items that went to bid for the entire month of March 2015.
The purpose of the open records request was not so much to examine the finances of these public institutions – although we will do that – as it was to gauge how they comply with an expansive open records request.
Sunshine Week, March 13-19, is a national initiative that aims to “promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” according to organizers, including the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said taxpayers have a reasonable expectation to know how their money is spent, and getting fairly detailed information about individual purchases increases transparency.
Some government entities make purchasing information available on their websites, which means no open records request has to be made, Roberts said.
“That’s the type of information that government should be keeping in a very organized way,” he said. “It shouldn’t be difficult for a government to provide that information.”
It is also important that information be released in a spreadsheet or digital format that allows the public to search and analyze it, Roberts said. Senate Bill 37 would have made it a law to release records in their original digital form if requested, but a Senate committee last month killed the bill.
“The pubic ought to be able to get this information in a way that they can understand it and analyze it and maybe look at it in ways that nobody else has really been looking at it,” Roberts said.
All of the eight agencies responded within the three days, as required under the Colorado Open Records Act.
The Herald asked agencies to notify us in advance of the cost associated with gathering and filling these requests. Several agencies said it could cost hundreds of dollars to fill, so they provided alternatives that would achieve the spirit of the request and cost less.
Several school districts responded by providing an itemized list of invoices rather than providing the actual invoices. We went back to them to request the invoices, and they provided us with a cost estimate. Ultimately, we decided to ask for a few specific invoices to see if they would comply.
City of Durango
The city of Durango responded to the Herald’s open records request the day it was received.
Dana Evans, deputy clerk and records manager, said it would take four to six hours of staff time and hundreds of copies to fill the request, which would cost the Herald several hundred dollars.
Instead, she encouraged the Herald to simplify its request by asking for a list of all the city’s payables, which would include date of invoice, total amount paid, who was paid and a brief description of the expense.
The Herald could then review the list and decide if it wanted to inspect specific invoices for more detail, she said.
“It’s going to be a lot less costly,” she said. “As far as actually pulling invoices and making copies, that’s going to take a lot longer.”
The Herald agreed to submit a new request for the list of invoices. The city provided the list as a spreadsheet at a cost of $9.17. The document contains a list of 855 invoices paid between March 2, 2015, and March 31, 2015. (March 1, 2015, was a Sunday.)
The highest expense of $400,000 was paid to Chevron Midcontinent L.P. for a Wilson Gulch Road pipeline. The least expensive item was $5.55 paid to Supply Works for janitorial supplies. The median cost of the 855 items was $157.67. The total for payables for the month was $2,857,971.
The city also provided a spreadsheet with credit card purchases totaling $302,795 for the month. The highest expense was $50,649 to La Plata Electric Association. The lowest expense, excluding deposits that were returned, was 59 cents paid to CenturyLink.
La Plata County
La Plata County officials responded within 24 hours to the Herald’s March 1 request for purchasing invoices the county registered from March 1, 2015, through March 31, 2015.
Diane Sorensen, the county finance director, provided three lists of invoices paid during that month in addition to one list of items that went to bid.
The lists detail invoices registered by the Department of Human Services, the county and Public Trustee.
“If The Durango Herald wishes to view individual invoices or bid documents, you may highlight the specific invoices or bids on the lists and return them to us to pull and make available for your inspection,” Sorensen wrote in an email.
Most bids documented came from the road and bridge, and weed management departments. The largest bid was $321,450 for hot mix asphalt for the road and bridge department.
The list of county invoices show the most substantial funds went to Wilson Gulch Road, and tax allocations for Bayfield, Durango and Ignacio.
A total of about $3.1 million was spent by the county for the month, with about $126,400 reissued or voided. Most of the $126,400 was from one check for $125,000, which was a required deposit when the county made an offer on the 10 Burnett Court property. The offer was not accepted, so the check was returned and voided, and is not included in the $3.1 million figure.
The rest accounts for checks voided because they were lost or never received by the vendor.
The documentation was provided at no cost. Sorensen estimated staff spent five minutes per list on the request.
Durango School District 9-R
Within an hour of receiving the request, Durango School District Chief Financial Officer Jason Austin called to see if providing a register of the 1,170 invoices paid in March 2015 would suffice.
The register arrived 15 minutes later free of charge. While it included the names of the vendors and the amounts paid, it did not include further information about the products or services rendered.
“We file invoices alphabetically by vendor,” he said when asked for the invoices, “so it would take quite a bit of time to go back through and pull all of them.”
A requested quote arrived about 48 hours later, estimating charges at a minimum of $247.60. It would require another three days to comply, said Sarah Berggren, executive assistant to Superintendent Dan Snowberger and clerk to the 9-R Board of Education.
“Please let me know how you would like to proceed,” she wrote in the estimate. “We are eager to provide you with information that is helpful while being mindful of budgetary restraints.”
The Herald requested invoices for five payees – Animas Code Labs, Animas Water Co., Pueblo Community College (now Southwest Colorado Community College), Mercy Regional Medical Center and Turtle Lake Refuge – and they arrived early the next morning, well within the three days allowed by law.
District 9-R paid Animas Code Labs $22,500 in prepaid software development fees and $629 in travel-cost reimbursement; Animas Water Co., $295 for Animas Valley Elementary School’s water bill; and $8,200 to Mercy for athletic training for the winter 2015 season. PCC, which provides concurrent enrollment for Durango and Big Picture high schools, received $47,584.58, which broke down to $710.15 tuition for each of 25 students. And Turtle Lake Refuge delivered a half-pound of microgreens for $6.
The school district did not charge for the more limited request.
Ignacio School District
The Ignacio School District responded to the Herald’s request for purchasing invoices from March 1, 2015, to March 31, 2015 via phone call.
When the Herald asked to inspect the documents, District Finance Director Marie Horn said pulling each invoice for that month would take a “substantial” amount of staff time and money because of the way the district’s filing system is set up.
“Our records are filed in a drawer,” Horn said. “Looking at the check register, there are over 160 checks written in that month. Depending on how many invoices there are, it would add up.”
Horn said the cost would be 50 cents per page, whether the Herald requests hard copies or electronic copies.
Check registers for the school district are broken down by month.
In March 2015, the largest expenditures include an electric bill from La Plata Electric Association for $20,659, staff health insurance for $86,880, baseball supplies from Sports World Team for $34,281 and payroll expenses.
Reported totals for that month were $978,447.
Town of Ignacio
The town of Ignacio responded to the Herald’s request for all purchasing invoices paid in the month of March 2015 within 24 hours.
Interim Town Manager Mark Garcia responded by email on March 2, including an attachment of the town’s Records Accessibility Form to be completed pursuant to the Colorado Open Records Act.
Garcia said the records are available for review and invited the Herald to request dates and times to do so during town business hours.
“Fees will be assessed based on the charges identified on the Records Accessibility Form,” Garcia wrote.
The form requests a list of desired documents and allowance for three working days to search for the records.
Copies of documents are 25 cents per page, and “research/supervision” is priced at $25 per hour.
There were no big-ticket items in March 2015, so no items went to bid, Garcia said.
To view the documents electronically, he said the 46 invoices, including credit card expenses, for that period would have to be pulled and scanned into a computer. Garcia estimated the retrieval of those documents would take two hours of staff labor, totaling $50.
Town of Bayfield
An open records request for all purchasing invoices paid from March 1, 2015, through March 31, 2015, by the town of Bayfield, including invoices, credit cards and items that went to bid garnered a response within 72 hours.
“The records have been complied and are available for inspection,” wrote Town Manager Chris La May. The response came within the time allotted by the Colorado Open Records Act.
La May said all records were compiled within one hour, so there was no cost. The documents were available for inspection Monday through Friday during normal business hours.
La May said certain personnel file records were not disclosed pursuant to policy, as well as information concerning users of public utilities. He added records were redacted if they contained attorney-client privilege.
“During inspection, the town will photocopy any pages you wish to have copied with payment of $0.15 per page,” he wrote. “If the volume is large, the town may request you tag the page you would like copied and we will notify you when the copies are available for pickup.”
The Herald visited Bayfield Town Hall on Wednesday and reviewed the documents.
A random sampling showed the town paid the city of Durango $19,208.99 for first-quarter dispatch services. Another invoice for Bayfield’s Parks and Recreation Department spent $4,000 for youth T-shirts.
Bayfield School District
The Bayfield School District contacted the Herald just hours after an open records request was filed for an itemized list of invoices.
Director of Finance Amy Lyons pointed to the school district’s website, which openly lists all purchases for the year.
“Our district is required to post all check registers and credit card statements in compliance with the Financial Transparency Act,” she said.
All building, activity and general funds for past fiscal years were available via a downloadable document.
The district spent almost $20,000 in its activity fund that month. The credit card billing periods run from mid-month to mid-month, so from Feb. 20 to March 19, the district was billed $5,201.44 for charges made by 11 people.
Lyons said if the Herald chose to inspect all invoices associated with the month’s worth of purchases, it would take five to seven hours for her to pull the documents.
Lyons said according to policy, the district might charge a fee for staff time spent in excess of one hour for working on an open records request. The rate is $30 per hour.
She estimated the total cost would be $125 to $175.
Fort Lewis College
Fort Lewis College responded within an hour to say it had received a March 1 records request from the Herald.
The college is one of the largest employers in the county, and to obtain a full month’s financial records, which included more than 2,000 document pages, including bids and invoices, was quoted at more than $1,000 by the morning of March 3.
“It’s a lot of information, and it will take some time,” said custodian of records Mitch Davis.
After some negotiations, Davis responded with a bid for a scaled down request at $40 on the morning of March 4 to provide documents in five areas: credit card charges, a register of check requests, bids for the FLC football team’s transportation for away games, bids for a remodel of the theater including several safety features and a request for proposals for a major piece of public art for the large wall of the Community Concert Hall facing the parking lot. The final charge for a further reduced request was $14.50, and the information arrived that afternoon, after Davis redacted information such as credit card numbers.
The records show that more than 200 people, listed individually, charge for items, such as office supplies, grounds-keeping machinery, professional memberships, art supplies and food, on behalf of the college. No monthly totals are listed for the check requests or credit card documents.