Transparency. Transparency. Transparency? Steamboat Springs mulls changes to make government more open
Steamboat Springs — Sometimes, citizens read Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell’s emails before he does.
And he doesn’t think it’s that odd.
For the past two years, the residents in that Front Range community have been able to log onto a web portal and access the email communications of their elected officials hours after the officials themselves send or receive them.
“It removes suspicions about things,” Troxell said about the email system, which costs the city a little more than $2,000 per year to run and as many as two hours of staff time per week to operate. “It’s been a useful and positive thing for the community.”
Troxell said he can’t think of any downsides to the new email system.
He’s also been surprised at how little impact it’s had on how he and other elected officials communicate with each other and with city staff.
“There wasn’t a single issue that led to us adopting it,” Troxell said. “It was really more of a council mindset that we didn’t want to appear we were hiding things.”
At Fort Collins City Hall, City Clerk Wanda Winkelmann doesn’t spend any time digging through filing cabinets or even searching hard drives to fulfill open records requests.
She also doesn’t send out a lot of bills to residents who are seeking more information about their government’s spending habits.
“We hardly get any records requests here, because we put so much of our information online and accessible for free,” Winkelmann said. “All of the city’s expenses and receipts are posted on our website. If a council member goes on a trip, all of those receipts are online.”
The salaries of all city employees are accessible after just a couple of clicks on the website; so are years worth of payment records for several categories of city supplies ranging from de-icing materials to chlorine to cell phone services.
From the web portal, a citizen can see how much the city has spent on hazardous waste removal, catering for public events and other items paid for on city credit cards.
The records can even be converted to an Excel spreadsheet to track spending by department during certain years.
Here in Steamboat Springs, gaining access to open records and email communications is a more time-consuming, and costly, task for residents.
Requests for employee salaries are met with a request to fill out a form that needs the requestor’s name, address and phone number.
Finding out how much the city has spent on matters of intense public interest also can rack up research fees.
For example, it cost the Steamboat Today $80.25 in city research fees to learn how much the city spent on an internal police investigation that led to the ouster of the department’s top cops.
City staff had to spend 3.5 hours researching legal bills and adding up the cost.
On the Fort Collins system, legal expenses are automatically tracked and put online for public review at the end of every month.
And residents in Steamboat who want to read the hundreds of emails their elected officials have sent to each other about city business would likely have to pay more than $900 because of the 20 to 30 hours of staff time the city has estimated it would take to review the documents.
Fort Collins is among a handful of cities in Colorado that have embraced new technology to make their records more accessible and their government more transparent.
Loveland was the latest to follow suit, using the same software for email transparency.
Here in Steamboat Springs, the current City Council has just started to inquire about some of the methods other communities are using to make their governments more open, accessible and transparent.
And a statewide working group could change the game for everyone and give residents a new avenue to mediate records disputes when the group presents recommendations for improving the Colorado Open Records Act next year.
If there was a drinking game word that would have gotten everyone buzzed during the 2015 Steamboat Springs City Council election, it was “transparency.”
Every candidate promised it and mentioned it often at campaign events and forums.
The city government was still engulfed by the scandal that would lead to the resignations of its police chief, deputy police chief and city manager. And council members at the time all agreed the city’s level of trust with the public had taken a significant hit.
Fast forward to today, and the current council has taken some steps to improve transparency.
Members are making themselves more available to talk to citizens at a table at the Farmers Market and a local bar-places that are outside of the often-intimidating atmosphere of the council dais and television cameras.
A new city attorney has made the notices for council’s executive sessions more detailed so that residents have a better understanding of the specific issue the council needs to discuss behind closed doors.
And a new city manager has intervened in a small number of records disputes and ensured that residents don’t have to pay $30 for a simple audio recording of a council discussion.
But the council’s goal of building community trust has hit some turbulence in recent months.
The council is looking to move beyond some its own admitted transparency errors, which have included two undisclosed conflicts of interest that led to revotes and changed decisions, an undefined policy on personal email usage and an initial vote to deny the release of a police investigation report that was critical of the management of the police department.
The latter development spurred a former city councilwoman and current county commissioner to email council members and claim they had made one of its biggest mistakes in several years.
“In my view it is the most catastrophically bad vote the council has taken in a decade,” Cari Hermacinski wrote days before the council ultimately decided to overturn that decision following a public outcry.
Community members have raised other issues in recent months, including the council’s continued habit of leaving closed-door executive sessions and quickly adopting some form of a position without having any public discussion.
In addition, efforts by the local media and residents to request information from their government and elected officials have sometimes been delayed or stymied by costly bills.
In one case, outspoken resident Scott Wedel was told by the city clerk’s office he would have to pay $30 for an audio recording of a public meeting in which Wedel was talked about by the council and passed over for a position on a city manager interview committee.
It took an intervention from City Manager Gary Suiter to get the audio recording posted online for free.
Wedel also criticized the city’s policy of requiring residents to fill out a form with their address to obtain public records from City Hall when his request for city manager salary comparison data was held up until he submitted the form.
“I think the city’s policy on requiring you fill out a form with all required fields and sign it is excessive, unfriendly and completely unneeded and unwise,” Wedel told the council.
A new world
A recent records request from Steamboat Today revealed council members today regularly discuss city business via their personal email accounts.
It’s a manner of communication that concerns transparency advocates, because some of the council’s emails were not archived and preserved in the same manner that they would have been had they been sent on official city email accounts.
And getting a glimpse at the content of these emails, which span a wide range of topics from the city’s search to a new police station to discussions about potential conflicts of interest, is time consuming and costly.
Council members themselves were angered, surprised and stumped by the request initially.
Councilman Tony Connell even spent money to repair a damaged computer to obtain previous emails from his personal account.
Steamboat Today is currently reviewing a log of all the emails provided by City Attorney Dan Foote.
The log contains only the subject lines of the email and the senders and recipients.
Foote said it would take an estimated 20 to 30 hours of staff time and cost the newspaper an estimated $900 plus dollars to have all the emails reviewed for potential public release.
“There has got to be a better way to do this,” Councilman Scott Ford said Tuesday as the council discussed the request.
Ford said he believes with the range of big decisions the council will soon make, it should expect more requests from the public and the media for open records.
The council asked Suiter to begin researching what other cities have done to make the emails of their elected officials more accessible.
Ford specifically noted the Fort Collins system as a potential model.
“They’ve recognized emails have become an important part of the public record, and to have those emails easily searchable is important for them,” Ford said.
In the short term, councilwoman Robin Crossan suggested that council members should adopt a policy of only using their official city email accounts.
“Transparency is something we’ve been talking a lot about. We don’t even have an email policy,” Councilman Jason Lacy said.
Suiter said he’s admired what other larger cities have done to boost transparency, but he noted Steamboat is limited by its smaller budget.
Opening up government
Suiter was at the forefront of some notable government transparency efforts in previous careers.
He said Wednesday he brought TV cameras to the mountain communities he managed in the 1980s and 1990s
There was some hesitation from the council members, some of whom enjoyed being able to make off-color jokes away from TV cameras.
But Suiter said they adapted, and the communities benefited.
Suiter himself has also shown a willingness in Steamboat to forgo some of City Hall’s own records policies and share documents requested by residents or media if he has them in his possession, all without the submittal of a form.
“If I have it, I don’t mind sharing it,” Suiter said.
Suiter has other ideas for helping the city government and the council become a more transparent operation.
He sees potential in utilizing the city’s TV station to connect more with the public.
“In terms of improving transparency, I like to tell councils that if there’s anything they need to discuss, put it on the agenda. And I think this council supports that,” Suiter said.
Suiter said if City Council was conducting business outside of the public eye, the city likely would not have the five-hour-plus council meetings it is seeing today.
But inevitably, in some communities, there comes a time when governments and the media and the public come to an impasse over the release of information or about how a meeting was conducted.
When governments in Colorado withhold documents that a residents or the media thinks should be public record or if they hold a meeting that is thought to be illegal, the only recourse is a legal battle.
And oftentimes, one side must pay out big money to secure records or keep them private.
“State agencies and local governments have the upper hand in freedom-of-information, or FOI, disputes, because most people – and many news organizations these days – are reluctant to sue, even though some legal costs are recoverable if you prevail in a lawsuit,” Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Executive Director Jeff Roberts wrote in a recent article. “Citizens who consider handling their own lawsuits are justifiably intimated by the prospect of going up against city attorneys, school district attorneys or the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.”
In a study he commissioned, Roberts found the litigate-or-give-up system isn’t the norm in all states in the country.
He said at least 26 states “offer some sort of dispute-resolution process as an alternative to suing the government when (open records) violations are alleged.”
Ohio is the most recent state to adopt a new system.
Starting this fall, Ohio residents will be able to pay a $25 filing fee and have a special master of the Ohio Court of Claims attempt mediation, Roberts reported.
In some states, independent boards hear complaints and can issue rulings about whether records should be released.
Such a system could have been a game changer for a records dispute here in Steamboat last year.
Steamboat Today decided not to pursue a lawsuit against the city of Steamboat Springs to seek the full release of an internal police investigation that found the city’s former top cops presided over a hostile work environment.
But in two cases in recent years, the current system has cost governments in Routt County money.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners in 2014 had to pay Steamboat Today $10,287.85 in legal fees after a judge ordered the Routt County coroner to make public the autopsy for a 3-year-old boy who died of dehydration.
The Routt County District Attorney had sought to keep the public record private until they had finished an investigation.
“So this ends up being a very expensive lesson,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said.
In 2009, the Steamboat Springs School Board had to pay Steamboat Today $50,000 in attorney fees after the board lost a lawsuit related to an illegal executive session the board held in 2007.
The board also had to turn over transcripts of the meeting that were sought by the newspaper.
Colorado’s reliance on litigation for open records disputes could soon change.
A working group of transparency advocates and government officials have started meeting to discuss potential changes to the state’s open records laws.
One item being discussed is the creation of a new mediation system.
Roberts hopes the working group can come up with a solution before the next legislative session.
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