City Hall e-mails might soon be close as a click
It may not be long before curious citizens can plop down in front of a computer terminal at Grand Junction City Hall and peruse e-mail communications of elected City Council members.
Councilman Gregg Palmer has long wanted members of the public to have that access, but he’s pressing the idea after a case in which an Orchard Mesa woman was quoted a price of $1,300 to attain nine months of council e-mails.
“I’m from the inside looking out and I think we’re transparent,” Palmer said. “I want people to see everything that we do, but if you’re on the outside looking in, you can’t see that. Maybe it’s time we look at this as we move more and more electronic.”
According to the Colorado Open Records Act, members of the public should be able to inspect some government records, including e-mails, at reasonable times, and the cost of copies is not to exceed 25 cents per page.
City Attorney John Shaver at a recent pre-council meeting said it would be fairly easy to program a computer to search for specific search key words to allow people to read what City Council members are saying.
The issues of which words will be used as key words and how the computer will be set up are to be addressed in a future council workshop.
In November, Orchard Mesa resident Carrol Zehner requested nine months of e-mail communications among council members, city staff and Grand Junction planning commissioners about a proposal for a gravel mining operation in her neighborhood.
City staff said Zehner’s request of key words was so broad that it would require 26 hours of work at $50 an hour to complete the research and data manipulation.
Zehner has said city staff instructed her to broaden her request.
The search produced 38,000 records, but after duplicate and not applicable copies were weeded out, Zehner received 75 pages of e-mails. For 6 hours and 46 minutes of work, and the cost of copies, she was charged a little less than $400.
Palmer said he believes the city should continue charging fees for voluminous searches of the public record. That might include someone who wants to see all e-mails from City Council meetings in the past 10 years or requests that are not defined within some sort of parameters.
The city has been receiving an increase in its numbers of CORA requests lately, Palmer said.
How the city defines what e-mails will be made public on a computer will be an interesting exercise in freedom of information. Questions arise whether it will encourage elected officials to communicate about sensitive issues by picking up a phone, using home e-mail accounts, or other forms of communication that cannot be tracked.
Palmer said he doesn’t have any of the other council members’ home e-mail addresses. He and other council members have been well-versed by City Attorney John Shaver never to meet as a group of three or more outside of scheduled meetings.
With seven on the council, meetings of three or more members constitute a quorum.
“The more I’m on council, the less that happens,” Palmer said of e-mail chats and council members talking outside of meetings.
“Seven or eight years ago there was a lot of discussion and e-mail. It’s progressively gotten less and less.”