Aspen man learns that complaints are no longer anonymous

Gone are the days of filing a complaint with the government while resting assured your identity won’t be exposed.

Aspen resident John Miller learned that Monday after he told members of City Council, during the public-comment portion of their meeting, that he had complained about what he said was illegal construction activity in the city, only to be confronted by the accused party.

Miller, who runs a plumbing business, said his workers were threatened by the accused, who also threw rocks at his employees.

“I would never turn in anybody else again,” said Miller, who filed his complaint with the city.

Miller said he signed his name on the complaint form, and evidently the target was able to learn his identity from the city.

There was a time when people could file complaints knowing their identity would be confidential.

That changed in June 2015, when the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed a March 2014 decision by a Pitkin County district judge who had ruled Red Mountain resident Elesabeth R. Shook could not inspect government records revealing the identity of someone who complained to the county about a construction project on Shook’s property on Willoughby Way.

The complaint sparked a county investigation that found Shook hadn’t obtained the required construction permit for a new structure being built on her property.

Shook responded with a lawsuit under the Colorado Open Records Act arguing she should be allowed to see the complainant’s identity. The complainant asked the county to keep it under wraps. The county tried to and failed, ultimately having to pay $100,534 to Shook for legal expenses associated with the litigation.

City Attorney Jim True explained Monday that precedent-setting case to Miller and members of City Council, noting that “this is a difficult situation and we understand (Miller’s) point. And we had in the past taken the same position that we would protect that confidentiality, but we can’t anymore. The law just won’t allow it.”

Councilman Bert Myrin said he empathized with Miller’s issue.

“I think it’s inexcusable,” he said. “I think John’s 100 percent spot-on.”

Myrin said the city could simply remove the name-field on complaint forms, but True said anonymous complaints can present difficulties.

“If you accept anonymous complaints, then you don’t necessarily put yourself in a position to have evidence to investigate the complaint itself,” he said. “If we take the name, (the Shook case) indicates we have to provide it at some point.”

Councilman Ward Hauenstein advised Miller to document any further retaliation against him, but Miller declined.

“That’s not a concern of mine,” Miller said. “I’m a big boy and I can take care of myself. … It is an enormous amount of money the city is losing in (construction) permit fees.”

People should have a right to face their accusers, Councilwoman Ann Mullins said, “but maybe the city can take a look at better monitoring what’s going on so that we don’t have to debate on whether (the complainants) have to be anonymous or not.”