Waive fees as a gesture of transparent government
I sat through countless meetings of the editorial board at The Daily Sentinel, talking with politicians running for all manner of offices. Some wanted to be a senator or a governor or a school board member or a city council person. Not always, but often enough, we’d ask a candidate his or her thoughts on transparency in government.
I never remember a candidate saying he or she was opposed to conducting the government’s business in the light of day. Of course, they would all say, they truly believe in open government. Meetings should be conducted in public. Citizens should have the broadest possible access to government documents. Government in the sunshine is a cornerstone of a democracy. And on and on and on. Talking points all.
Why, I’d wager if one were to call up the seven members of the Grand Junction City Council and ask each one what he or she thought of government openness, each and every one would profess to be a fast and true disciple of transparency. One would be tempted at that point to play gotcha journalism and follow that question with this one: Would you be willing to waive the fees for researching and copying e-mails between city council members about a gravel pit on Orchard Mesa?
I really don’t know what they would say. I don’t know if these seven council members really believe in transparency when it comes down to something other than a concept. I do know the city of Grand Junction’s record on complying with the spirit of the Colorado Open Meetings and Open Records laws is spotty, at best.
A few years ago, for example, the city refused to release the plans submitted by an unsuccessful bidder for the Riverside Parkway after the city had paid thousands of dollars to buy them. On the other hand, the city has, on more than one occasion, released e-mail exchanges between council members I’m sure they would have rather kept under lock and key. The city has also required people to jump through every hoop possible before releasing documents most government agencies routinely hand over immediately to anyone who asks for them.
All of that is by way of background to the problem faced by a group of Orchard Mesa residents who want to see the gravel pit e-mails. They requested them. The city could have just given them to Carrol Zehner at that point. But instead the good people down at Fifth and Rood told her she’d have to pony up $1,300. Let’s face it, $1,300 is a lot of money in a good economy, and even more in the one we’re mired in.
The city is allowed to do that. It is in accordance with the Colorado Open Records Act, at least the letter of the law. But it does violence to the intent.
The law says the city can charge 25 cents per page, plus a “reasonable fee,” to manipulate data and conduct research. “Reasonable” to the city means $50 an hour, and it’s estimated it would take 26 hours to comply with the request. I hardly think $50 an hour is reasonable, and how such a task could take 26 hours is beyond me. But that’s what Zehner was told.
So this is the situation. A group of people who face the prospect of a gravel pit in their neighborhood have set up a fund so people can donate in order for them to see what city councilmen had to say about a public issue that has a great bearing on the future of their little corner of the world.
There’s an easy fix, of course. The city can waive any fee it wants. Just ask any of several developers who have had all manner of fees waived. And none of them was a paltry $1,300. The city has decided to do without hundreds of thousands of dollars in development fees. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But if the city can do that, surely it can get by without Carrol Zehner’s $1,300.
The fact that she has to take up a collection to pay the city for public documents is simply wrong.
If the seven members of the Grand Junction City Council really believe in transparency, it’s a wrong they will right forthwith.