Locals get low marks | AspenTimes.com

Locals get low marks

Aspen Times Staff Report

Aspen and Pitkin County officials didn’t get very high marks for their willingness to reveal public records to members of the public during a survey of local government offices.

Aspen Times representatives didn’t meet with any outright refusals when they asked for information that is part of the public record.

Instead, they were generally greeted with either a bureaucratic runaround, a lack of cooperation, an inability to produce the necessary information or simple ignorance of the law.

As is often the case, law enforcement agencies were the least cooperative.

In all cases, Times representatives asked for information that ought to be immediately available to anyone who asks, regardless of their reason for asking. Indeed, the person who asks doesn’t even have to be a citizen; the records are supposed to be wide open.

Here are the pertinent encounters between Times representatives and local officials:

Mayor’s travel expenses

When asked to provide the Aspen mayor’s travel and entertainment expenses for the past year, a woman in the city manager’s office (later joined by Mayor Rachel Richards herself) apparently made a sincere effort to comply.

However, the two women said they were having a hard time finding the appropriate records because of the way the city’s expenses are filed. The records, they said, are not broken into specific categories. The detailed computer reports they eventually turned over seem to contradict that statement.

In any case, the records – or, at least, some of them – were provided within two days.

School superintendent’s salary

A Times representative did not have an easy time finding out how much School Superintendent Tom Farrell is paid – but ultimately the information was provided.

The first person the Times representative asked for the information was the school personnel director. She sent him to the finance office. In the finance office, he was told he needed to ask the finance director – who had just left for the day. The Times representative left his name and phone number but never got a call back.

However, a worker in the personnel office did call him (unofficially) to say that, in fact, the first woman he had spoken to was the one who had the information – but that she had sent him to the finance office to stall for time. She used that time, he was told, to call the school district’s lawyer to ask for advice. That lawyer, appropriately, said the superintendent’s salary is public record.

A copy of the superintendent’s contract was eventually mailed to the Times representative.

Criminal charges

When asked to provide “records of all persons charged in connection with any crime during the past 24 hours,” a woman in the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office came as close as anyone in local government did to simply saying “no.” The woman said she didn’t know if that information was public record (it is) and said that, in any case, 24 hours was probably too soon to have any information available.

Who’s in jail?

The sheriff’s department also got a failing grade when asked for a list of everyone in the jail. When first asked for the list, a jailer responded that anyone interested could find it in the local newspapers. When pressed further, the jailer said she couldn’t provide the list because it contained “some confidential information.”

In fact, the Pitkin County jail roster is available on the Internet – but the jailer didn’t mention that.

Crime records

Local law enforcement failed yet again when asked for reports on all recent burglaries within the city of Aspen. In this case, there wasn’t an outright refusal, there was simply a runaround – ending in a kind of refusal.

A “customer service officer” produced a clipboard that has the records of cases that have been “cleared,” rather than all cases that have occurred. No burglaries were listed in those reports, although there had been several within the time period specified.

The Times representative was then referred to a “computer specialist” who said she could look up the report on a specific incident, if requested. But when she was asked for the reports on “all burglaries,” she refused, saying “That’s `fishing’ and we don’t do that.”

However, the computer specialist did promise to call the Times to report how many burglaries had occurred within the past two weeks. She provided that information within an hour.

Restaurant inspections

Information on restaurant health inspections has been a touchy subject in past years, but a Times representative had only a little trouble in gaining access to those very public records.

When asked for the recent reports on a specific Aspen restaurant, a woman at the Aspen/Pitkin County Environmental Health Department insisted that a formal, written request was required.

When the Times representative provided that written request, the woman took the letter to the city attorney for review, then quickly returned and provided the entire health inspection file of the restaurant in question.

She also apologized for any delay or inconvenience and said she simply wasn’t familiar with the rules for granting public access to the records – and that her boss was out of town, so she hadn’t been able to ask for guidance. The Times representative said she was hospitable and friendly and, in the end, very helpful.

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