Palmer leads City Council toward more enlightened e-mail policy
When a neighborhood activist on Orchard Mesa asked to see digital correspondence between Grand Junction City Council members about a proposed gravel pit in her neighborhood a few weeks ago, she was told she could expect to fork over some $1,300. That was what the city estimated it would cost, based on a $50-per-hour search fee.
As it turned out, the bill was only about $400. I thought then and think now the city should have given her the documents for nothing. But $400 is a lot more reasonable than $1,300 and, of more importance to Carrol Zehner, the council ultimately nixed the gravel pit.
Of more importance to everyone interested in transparency in government, and I assume that’s most, if not all, of us, Zehner got the attention of City Councilman Gregg Palmer.
Palmer, who’s nearing the end of his second term, has developed a reputation at City Hall of being someone who’s not willing to get along and go along.
He was widely perceived to be the candidate of the business community when he first ran for City Council eight years ago. But it didn’t take long for him to disabuse everyone of any notion he might be in someone’s pocket. That’s a good thing, although there have been a few people over the years who weren’t happy with what they saw as the Main Street shoe store owner’s intransigence. Others saw the same positions as conviction. I’ve always been in the latter camp.
Palmer is one of those people who holds fast to a position once it’s taken, but he’s willing to listen to everyone before he makes up his mind. That’s a good public servant.
So a few weeks ago, after suggesting the council’s fees for open records requests were less than fair, I was the recipient of an e-mail from the good councilman. The gist of it was it costs the city money to look for records and where would the city draw the line.
If the City Council were to waive Zehner’s fee, Palmer wrote, “Might we expect a flood of requests for all kinds of information over huge periods of time?”
There are any number of gadflies who would be more than happy spending their time filing request after request for public documents. “At some point,” he said, “we have to say there is no free lunch, and we don’t have the money. If (Zehner) wants the information, and there is a cost involved in procuring it, I submit it is reasonable to ask her, not the citizens, to pay for it.”
He had a point. But couldn’t the city deal with those whose sole purpose is to make work for city employees on a case-by-case basis? It is, after all, the public’s business we’re talking about.
I’m not sure what transpired between then and now. Except the Gregg Palmer I know apparently talked to some more people and concluded, yes, what he and his elected colleagues talk about in cyberspace really should be easily obtainable by anyone.
It was no surprise last week when Palmer took the lead in getting the city to develop a system that would allow anyone to sit at a computer terminal in City Hall and peruse electronic communications between council members.
He still believes people who want voluminous records should have to pay for them, but typical requests should be free.
The proposal on the table now is far from perfect. There is still the problem of council members communicating with each other via their own personal e-mail accounts. Nothing can stop council members from getting together on a conference call to discuss city business. Nothing, except the law says they can’t do that.
It is, though, a realization on the part of the City Council that open government really does matter. It’s not something to which they simply give lip service.
It’s one small step and one for which I say thank you, Grand Junction City Council in general and Councilman Gregg Palmer in particular.