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City Manager rescinds fee change to public records policy

By Staff | Nov 29, 2011

City Manager Gary King rescinded a change to the city’s public records policy on Monday, restoring the threshold for “extensive” requests to an hour. King had unilaterally re-set the threshold at 15 minutes as of Oct. 1.

The reversal comes on the heels of the city manager taking heat for his job performance from both citizens and council members.

King also was criticized by former city employee Samantha Westen, who worked in the city clerk’s office. Westen left the city recently for another position in the private sector.

Westen wrote in a letter to city officials on Monday that King regularly tried to deter public records requests, saying some of the methods used gave her cause for concern.

Monday’s reversal of policy, though, was spearheaded by Councilmember Kevin McGrail. McGrail, who brought the issue forward a week ago prior to Westen’s letter, said he thought the threshold of 15 minutes was unfair to residents.

Under King’s new definition of “extensive,” the city began adding staff time to retreive and prepare records at 15 minutes instead of one hour. Council itself quickly felt the bite of the policy change with Councilmember Marty McClain being told he would have to pay more than $700 for access to King’s cell phone records.

King said previously that information needed to be redacted from his records and he was the only one who would know what information was sensitive and what was not. He used his hourly salaried rate to determine the bill.

Typically, staff time would be billed at the rate of the lowest paid individual on city staff capable of compiling and perparing “etensive” records request for release. The staff time required would be added to allowable copying fees.

McGrail used Westen’s letter as evidence of what he said was King’s attempt to purposely block the release of information.

McGrail said the policy change should have been vetted by council in a public setting before its implementation.

City Attorney Dolores Menendez said King’s change was in line with his duties as city manager, but city council was within its authority to revisit the policy if the board chose to do so.

Westen, who said she wrote the letter to correct inaccurate information as to why she left her position as a research specialist, stated that King tried to circumvent the public records policy by setting up road blocks. Westen said the policy change was one of the reasons she left her job in the city clerk’s office.

Westen wrote: “Comments similar to ‘When can we consider this harrassment and deny requests?’ and ‘How much can we charge to deter more requests coming in, they are requesting too much.’ were what we started hearing back from Mr. King or various Council members and even a couple of people on staff – especially when the requests were for something they didn’t want released. We were constantly being forced to contact the Legal Department to get an opinion from them on items that Mr. King or certain Councilmembers didn’t want to release – or charge fees for when it wasn’t really warranted.”

She said research conducted by the City Clerk’s Office concerning the time is would take to bill and track payments actually showed “it would be most cost-effective to start this charge at one hour.”

King said Monday that Westen’s letter was untrue and that it was an attempt to “set policy” for the city.

King added he was being “indicted” by email.

“I take exception to that,” King said of the letter. “No one was told to do anything that was unethical.”

City Clerk Rebecca vanDeutekom told council the hour threshold was satisfactory to the public.

“I personally had not heard of any complaints from the public when it was set at an hour,” she said.

Councilmember Derrick Donnell said King’s policy change was an “irritant” to him and now that it had been in place for a awhile, the city could switch back to the hour threshold and study the requests to see if they were, in fact, proving to be a problem for the city clerk’s office.

“We can just flip it back and have three or four months of doing it the old way, then we can look at it as a council,” Donnell said.