As part of the annual Sunshine Week, The Durango Herald requested emails from nine local government officials in an effort to highlight the importance of transparency.
Sunshine Week, a national initiative that runs from March 15 to 21, 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.
The issue is timely, as Hillary Rodham Clinton has found herself answering questions related to her tenure as secretary of state, during which time she used a private email account to conduct business, and has – so far – refused to release all records.
For the most part, the nine local officials who were asked to provide emails sent and received on Feb. 23 and 24 were accommodating, providing the emails with little hassle at no cost or minimal cost. The Herald chose those days, because Feb. 23 was the day a winter storm caused havoc, closing schools, disrupting transportation and putting a strain on government resources.
But the city of Durango placed a hefty price tag on the administrative and copying costs associated with compiling the two days’ worth of emails. The city wanted $156.57 to supply emails from City Manager Ron LeBlanc and $102.83 for emails from Durango-La Plata County Airport Director Kip Turner.
Research and retrieval fees have been standardized and lowered because of state legislation passed in 2014. Lawmakers capped administrative costs at $30 per hour. Agencies also are prohibited from charging fees for at least the first hour of time spent. But costs can still add up.
The Colorado Open Records Act requires that most public records be available to the public. Written requests must be made to the government office that actually holds the record itself. Agencies have up to three working days to comply with the request. If extenuating circumstances exist, then they have up to seven working days to fill the request.
Exemptions exist for such things as personal information, attorney-client privilege, criminal-justice records or documents prepared for a criminal investigation, work product prepared for an elected official, and trade secrets and proprietary information.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said it is critical to participate in events like Sunshine Week because it is important to remind public officials that government should be transparent.
“Access to information about the activities of government is vital to our American democracy,” Roberts said. “Democracy doesn’t work unless people know what their governments are doing, and these laws are on the books so that people can get the information if it’s not right there in front of them.”
Here are brief summaries of the public emails provided to the Herald:
Durango School District 9-R Superintendent
A quick review of a 1-inch stack of printed emails between Superintendent Dan Snowberger and administrators, teachers, staff members and community residents reveals conversations about reports, conferences, meetings, tests, letters sent and received, filling of positions, required state testing, travel plans, staff surveys, awards, training sessions, student immunization, professional development and playing catch-up after a “snow day” shut down operations.
Unfamiliarity with topics of discussion, abbreviations, acronyms, the often one-way nature of the emails and the first-name basis of interchanges leave an outsider feeling out of the loop.
Chris La May
Bayfield Town Manager
If you ever thought that being a town manager was glorious and always exciting, a look at a couple days’ worth of emails might set you straight.
A look through Bayfield Town Manager Chris La May’s emails sent and received on Feb. 23-24 showed him working on a variety of projects and issues. Among them were an issue about the status of CenturyLink’s fiber-optic line during and after replacement of two bridges and the sales-tax issue funding streets and storm water issues.
If you’re a town manager, you are apparently bombarded with invitations to various conferences and seminars from all over the state. It was unclear if La May had accepted any of these invites.
In its attempt to help create a sustainable downtown, the town is hosting a group of consultants to assess the downtown and overall business climate. La May invited several “local service providers” to attend a Town Hall meeting Monday about the program.
Durango City Manager
Durango-La Plata County Airport Director
The city replied to the Herald’s request to produce the emails of City Manager Ron LeBlanc and Durango-La Plata County Airport Director Kip Turner within three working days. But the Herald opted not to pay $156.57 for LeBlanc’s emails, and $102.83 for Turner’s.
In the invoice provided to the Herald, the city broke down the costs of turning over the documents as follows:
Costs for LeBlanc’s emails: $60 for two hours of staff time and $89.50 for 358 copies plus $7.07 for tax.
Costs for Turner’s emails: $30 for one hour of staff time and $67.50 for 270 copies plus $5.33 for tax.
In both cases, the city refused to allow the Herald to view the emails without paying for the copies.
Durango Fire Protection District Chief
Noonan withheld eight emails, three having to do with personnel issues and five from the Colorado Information Analysis Center, which meet the criteria for exemption under the Privacy Act because the information contained is proprietary to the sender, Noonan said.
There was only one mention of the snowstorm, when he told a correspondent that “Many people have forgotten how to drive in it – nothing too serious.”
Other than that, Noonan’s correspondence was what one would expect from a fire chief – emails to his board with the most recent financials and a status report, attempts to get a staff member to a La Plata County Board of Appeals meeting on short notice and a number of notices of meetings and trainings both local and at the state level. He also received a video on a gas main explosion and updates on the status of the injured from the explosion and notification of a firefighter who died in the line of duty by having a heart attack while fighting a fire in the East.
La Plata County Manager
Kerby was quick and accommodating with his response to the open-records request, stating, “I fully understand and support the spirit of Sunshine Week.”
La Plata County Attorney Sheryl Rogers explained in a letter dated March 6 that the county denied access to four emails because they fell under attorney-client privilege, which is a legitimate reason to deny emails under Colorado Open Records Act.
Many of the emails to and from Kerby concerned scheduling matters.
But he did have to respond to one emergency caused by the snowstorm, when a delivery truck slid into a fiber-optic box in an alley behind the OMPO Building. The truck stopped just short of hitting the main power supply, which would have been catastrophic. Kerby congratulated staff for quickly dealing with the accident but said a more permanent solution is needed to avoid future accidents.
Kerby also raised issues concerning upcoming mill-levy questions.
Many of the other issues had to do with logistics from the snowstorm, including power-outage information, which didn’t appear to be severe. There were also a couple emails regarding pending legislation at the Colorado Legislature.
Dene Kay Thomas
Fort Lewis College President
Thomas’ office provided about 300 pages of emails for the two days requested. FLC printed the emails and made them available for inspection. Two emails were redacted under exceptions to the Colorado Open Records Act. One contained the name of an FLC donor; the other had identifying details of a job applicant.
Professor Charles Riggs was among those who criticized Thomas’ late call to cancel classes at 11 a.m. Feb. 23. Thomas admitted the snowstorm could have been handled better. “You are right,” she replied to Riggs. “It was my call and it was a bad one.”
Her inbox also included flight and hotel reservations for a late February trip to Washington, D.C. Her airplane ticket was for a coach flight on United Airlines, while her two-night stay at the Hotel Lombardy tallied $418.
Spokesman Mitch Davis said in an interview Thomas made the trip to speak with Colorado’s congressional delegation regarding FLC’s tuition waiver for Native American students.
Lee San Miguel
Ignacio Town Manager
Construction projects dominated Ignacio Town Manager Lee San Miguel’s email correspondence Feb. 23-24.
The projects included a gas-line construction, plans to improve a section of Candelaria Drive and a new housing development. A bill for gas-line repair also crossed San Miguel’s desk coming in at $5,700.
The future of Ignacio Elementary School currently housing high school students also played prominently in his correspondence. He was asked to review community ideas for the school that will be presented to the Ignacio School Board on Thursday.
He also received a variety of invitations to meetings, including Southern Ute Community Action Plan board meetings and seminars on management and tourism. San Miguel was also reminded that an emergency-response plan is due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture soon.
The town clerk provided San Miguel’s emails and attachments but withheld one email because it was from the town’s law firm.
San Juan Basin Health Department Executive Director
A barrage of emails about Ebola, immunizations, contraception and state bills crammed San Juan Basin Health Department Executive Director Liane Jollon’s email inbox Feb. 23-24.
She also received an invitation to a webinar on attracting and retaining essential employees as well as a few emails on interviewing applicants and a new hire – all seemingly appropriate after the department experienced quite a bit of turnover during 2014.
In other public health-related emails, she discussed the distribution of on-site wastewater-treatment systems, such as septic tanks across the state and organized responses to public-health surveys.
Perhaps the most humanizing correspondence was a conversation between Jollon and City Manager Ron LeBlanc. LeBlanc offered his support after a negative letter to editor about Jollon ran in the Herald.
“I have taken similar hits,” LeBlanc wrote. “Some of the shrapnel remains buried close to my heart.”