Delay recalls standoff over similar information
By Roger McCredie- “Open government is the governing philosophy which states that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. The City of Asheville wholly supports this concept and seeks to actively engage the community in our governmental processes. The City recognizes transparency is important to good government and stands behind its record of providing access to public records.” — The City of Asheville Website
It’s been two weeks and the silence is deafening.
As of copy deadline Tuesday, the City of Asheville has not responded to – or even acknowledged receipt of – a formal public documents request made by the Tribune for copies of financial records detailing stormwater department salaries and expenditures.
On February 15 the Tribune sent the city a letter asking specifically for copies of that department’s line item ledger sheets pertaining to salaries and wages, construction expenditures and a category the budget calls “other direct expenses.”
On the advice of City Clerk Maggie Burleson the Tribune’s letter was directed to Benjamin Farmer, an assistant in the city’s Legal Department, rather than to Dawa Hitch, the city’s Director of Communication and Public Engagement, whose department usually processes document requests.
The city’s current handbook pertaining to public records requests states, “The city will make an initial response to the request for public records within five (5) business days of receipt of the request.” The Tribune’s request was mailed on February 15, which was a postal holiday, but a postal service official says the letter should have been received by Wednesday, February 17.
On February 29, the Tribune telephoned Farmer to inquire as to the status of its request. An aide indicated Farmer was available; however, the call went to his voice mail so the Tribune left a message asking him to return the call. Farmer had not responded by press time.
The Tribune asked for the stormwater records in order to compare the latest available figures for that department’s salaries and expenses with numbers the Tribune obtained in the summer of 2013. At that time, after a weeks-long exchange of letters, phone calls and e-mails, the city furnished the Tribune with the information it requested, but only as of fiscal year 2011, which it said was the latest year for which it had certified totals.
A 2014 analysis by the Tribune, based on those figures, showed that salaries made up approximately 38% of the stormwater department’s budget. The category titled “Other Direct Expenses” which stormwater department head McCray Coates said “is for things like materials, contracted services, professional services, fleet maintenance, fuel, street cut charges, tipping fees, etc.,” also came to about 38% of the total budget. When construction costs were broken out separately, they averaged about 3%. And the remainder, which historically has ranged between 19 and 21 per cent, was shown as going into a reserve fund, at an average of $660,000 per year.
The 2014 study showed that when the itemized expenditure figures, which totaled $13,896,552, were subtracted from $17,622,027 in gross revenue, a balance of $3,725,505, or 21%, was left unaccounted for.
The city’s lack of response to the current document request fueled speculation as to whether another series of delays, similar to those that plagued the one in 2013, was in the offing. That saga also began simply enough, with an e-mail to Coates asking for the same itemized ledger sheets pertaining to salaries and other payouts. The e-mail was sent June 27, 2013.
Coates responded the same day, saying he would begin assembling the indicated information and would be back in touch promptly. He sent a copy of his reply to Hitch. On July 5, having heard nothing further from Coates, the Tribune asked Hitch if she could supply an update. Hitch did not reply.
Another week went by.
On July 12 a Tribune reporter encountered Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball at a breakfast meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners. The reporter told Ball of the difficulty he was having in obtaining the documents he had asked for and Ball volunteered to help. The reporter e-mailed Ball later that day, thanking her for her offer of assistance. Ball replied that she had discovered Coates had been on vacation the previous week, and that she was copying him on the e-mail so that he could respond.
Later that day Coates e-mailed a three-line list of gross dollar totals for the budget categories indicated. The Tribune responded that it had requested detailed ledger sheets, not three lump-sum numbers out of context. Coates then replied that he was turning the entire matter over to public information officer Brian Postelle. That was on July 16. There was nothing further from the city.
On July 25 – four weeks after its initial e-mail request — the Tribune sent a certified letter to Acting City Attorney Martha McGlohon, recounting its attempts to acquire the stormwater information and invoking NCGS 132-6 (the North Carolina Freedom of Information Act). McGlohon replied:
“ … generally, the City strives to respond to a public record request within a reasonable period of time. A reasonable period of time is generally thirty (30) days, sometimes shorter, depending upon the scope of the request. I will check with City staff to determine the status of a response to your request and get back with you, hopefully, by the end of business today. Thank you for your inquiry.”
McGlohon’s mention of 30 days as a “reasonable time” for complying with a records request was in marked contrast to the city’s stated five-day turnaround time. Nevertheless, it brought a same-day e-mail from Coates, who said:
“First of all let me apologize for the time it has taken to pull this information together. Staff continues to work on this request and has the attached information for you to review and let us know if this is what you are asking for. Staff is continuing to work hard on pulling this information together and feels that it should have the completed information ready by one day next week.”
Nothing further was heard from Coates. But on July 31 Hitch resurfaced via an e-mail in which she said, “I realize I’m jumping into a request that is already moving along. I hope that it’s helpful that I jumped back in and that me taking the baton does not cause further confusion.” And attached to Hitch’s e-mail were the detailed ledger sheets originally requested some five weeks before.
The Tribune will continue to pursue the updated information it is currently seeking and will report on its progress.