Let the sun shine

How open is government in Southwest Colorado?

When founding father James Madison wrote “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” he was setting the stage for today’s open record and meeting laws.

In recognition of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government and freedom of information, reporters for The Durango Herald and Cortez Journal traveled across Southwest Colorado visiting 14 local governmental entities in an effort to gauge their openness. Reporters were assigned to organizations they do not normally cover and did not identify themselves in the hope of approaching clerks with the same kind of anonymity as the public. The Colorado Open Records Act does not require citizens to identify themselves when making requests for information.

Their assignment? To obtain a copy of employment contracts for preselected agency heads, including town managers, fire chiefs, school superintendents and sheriffs.

The contracts and employment agreements are considered public under Colorado’s open records act, said Denver attorney Tom Kelley, a media lawyer whose clients include Ballantine Communications, the Herald’s and Journal’s parent company. Some details in the contracts, such as a personal addresses, may not be public and can be redacted. Such information is not an excuse to deny access to a document, he said.

Most local agencies ultimately complied with Colorado’s Open Records Act, with some officials mentioning that their organizations had discussed open-records laws after a similar Herald audit in 2011.

For this story, the governing bodies are ranked in a range from “sunny,” where few or no problems were encountered, to “cloudy,” where the records were not obtained or were only obtained with difficulty. In good news for local residents, the skies are mostly sunny in Southwest Colorado when it comes to learning what local governments are doing.

Fort Lewis College

Dene Kay Thomas, president

Obtaining a public record from Fort Lewis College was a piece of cake. The requester went to the school’s Human Resources Office and asked for a copy of Thomas’s employment contract. The human resources manager asked for the requester’s name and to fill out a form, which asked for the name and contact information. The requester said she didn’t want to disclose that information and wrote on the form that she preferred not to say, which wasn’t challenged. The requester got the contract within minutes and wasn’t charged any fees.

Thomas earns a base salary of $236,000.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

Durango School District 9-R

Daniel J. Snowberger, superintendent

The requester entered the 9-R building where she was immediately asked to sign in. The requester asked whether this was mandatory, and the receptionist said “yes”. Later, it was learned that everyone entering the 9-R building must sign in for safety reasons. The requester was asked to go into the Human Resources Department to make the request. The requester was asked to write the request on a yellow legal pad because a written open records request was required. The requester was asked to write the request followed by a name, phone number and signature. The requester signed her name but did not print a last name on the document. The requester received a call about 10 minutes later from the 9-R records custodian asking for more information regarding the request. The requester went back to the 9-R building and was told that records requests normally tend to be more formal and detailed. But because she was there in person, an address was not needed for the request. Also, she was informed that the request would not take the allotted three days but would be ready in minutes. Though the requester never disclosed that she was with the Herald, the record’s custodian casually brought up the name of a former Herald reporter. She also said she would waive a 10-cent-per-page charge.

Snowberger earns $147,900 a year.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

San Juan Basin Health Department

Liane Jollon, executive director

The requester entered the San Juan Basin Health Department and asked for the contract and salary of the executive director. The receptionist didn’t know how to go about honoring the request so she immediately called someone from another office to assist the requester. A man came out and asked the requester to submit her request in writing, so the requester wrote the request on a note pad. She turned in the request without disclosing her name, just a phone number. The requester was asked for her name, which she declined to disclose. The requester simply asked to be called once the request was ready. She was informed that the department had up to three days to fulfill the request and asked if it was regarding a media request. The requester did not disclose what the request was for, and the man in charge did not continue to question her. The requester received a call less than an hour later informing her that the documents were ready.

Liane Jollon makes $90,000 a year.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

Bayfield School District

Troy Zabel, superintendent

The requester asked for the contract of Superintendent Troy Zabel. Initially, a receptionist said the contract may not be available until the following week. But later that same day, Zabel called the requester personally on a phone number listed on the request. He said the contract would be available the next morning. He asked for the requester’s name but was satisfied with a first name only.

The next day, Zabel’s contract was available. The school district charged 25 cents per page, which added up to $2 for the eight-page contract.

Zabel earns $121,900 a year.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

Town of Bayfield

Chris La May, town manager

The requester asked for the contract of Town Manager Chris La May. The requester was asked to fill out the town’s own form. A town employee insisted the requester’s name was necessary to go ahead with the request, although the Colorado Open Records Act does not require that.

LaMay’s contract was made available the same day. Bayfield charged $1.65, or 15 cents per page for 11 pages.

Bayfield included three amendments to LaMay’s contract that were made when he received raises. La May now earns $90,168 per year.

Sunshine rating: Partly cloudy, because records requests should be able to be submitted anonymously.

Town of Ignacio

Lee San Miguel, town manager

The requester said a Colorado Open Records Act request was being made to see the contract, including salary, of the town manager.

The clerk said it was the first time she had received such a request but that she would check with the city attorney to see if it was OK to release the document. It was.

No one asked the name of the requester, who completed a printed form, paid 25 cents a page for five pages ($1.25) and received the contract.

San Miguel’s contract was signed Nov. 18, 2013. He is an at-will employee, meaning he serves at the pleasure of the town council. The initial salary was $62,363.22 annually. A favorable review at three months raised the annual salary to $68,363.22.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

Ignacio School District

Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent

The requester said a Colorado Open Records Act request was being made to see the contract, including salary, of the superintendent.

The clerk wasn’t sure how long it would take, explaining that records were in boxes because the office had recently been moved to its present location. But the document should be ready within a day, she said.

The requester wrote the request on a blank sheet of paper, including a cellphone number to be notified. The document was ready the following afternoon. The charge was $1 for eight pages.

Fuschetto’s one-year contract was signed May 10, 2013, with an annual salary of $110,000. Discharge would require “good and just cause.”

Sunshine rating: Sunny

Durango Fire Protection District

Dan Noonan, chief

The records requestor showed up in person at the Durango Fire Protection District building near Bodo Industrial Park and asked Debbie Kourim, who was behind the front desk, for a copy of Chief Dan Noonan’s contract.

Kourim said the request would have to wait until Jodi Hayden, the agency’s human relations director, returned from lunch.

Kourim said she expected Hayden to return within a few hours.

Asked whether it was possible to make the open records request without Hayden’s involvement, Kourim said “no.” She didn’t know where the appropriate forms might be, and “everything like that” went through Hayden.

Kourim never asked the requester to identify herself.
The requester left her personal cellphone number with Kourim, and asked Kourim to have Hayden call her when Hayden got back to the office.

Within an hour, Hayden called. Hayden said it was the fire department’s policy to get records requests in writing. She did not ask for the requester’s name.

Later that afternoon, the records requester contacted Hayden by email, using a generic email account.

Hayden complied with the request within five working hours. She did not charge the requester for the record.

Noonan’s salary is $121,000.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

La Plata County

Joe Kerby, county manager

The requestor went to La Plata County Courthouse and told the woman at the information desk she wanted a copy of County Manager Joe Kerby’s contract. The woman behind the information desk directed the requester to Sarah Ferguson, the county’s administrative assistant.

At no point did the requester offer her name, nor was she asked it by county staff.

Ferguson said the request was no problem, though she didn’t know whether such a contract existed. She called a colleague to ask, saying, “The Herald is here, and they want a copy of the county manager’s contract.”

The colleague said it did exist, and Ferguson told the reporter/requester that she could fill out an open records request on the spot, and handed her the document.

When, five days later, the reporter did fill out the open records request, the county sent the contract within four hours.

Kerby makes $147,219 a year.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

City of Durango

Ron LeBlanc, city manager

Jim Spratlen, chief of police

The requester went to the Durango City Clerk’s Office and informed the receptionist that he needed to make two open records requests. She kindly provided the forms and instructions on what was required for the requests (contact information, records being sought, signature). When informed that he’d rather not provide his name but would give a phone number, the receptionist summoned City Clerk Amy Phillips. When the requester repeated to Phillips a desire to remain anonymous, she said, “We usually require a name with all requests” plus a signature stating that the requester agrees to the stipulations on the form, which include agreeing to any administrative fees accrued in the request. When the requester reminded Phillips that he was “pretty sure” it was his legal right to remain anonymous, she replied, “OK? ... Well, we’ve (the city of Durango) been over this.” The requester provided a phone number and the record sought but left the rest of the form blank. Phillips said she’d have to check with some others, including a lawyer for the city, and couldn’t guarantee the documents would be provided.

The requester received a call from Phillips’ office after three business days to say LeBlanc’s contract was available but not Spratlen’s, because he does not have a contract and salary information is listed in the city budget, which could be found online. She showed the requester a hard copy of the budget and the line item specifying Spratlen’s salary, then explained where the document could be found online. For LeBlanc’s contract, Phillips said they would honor the anonymous request this time but in the future would not, stating that some open records requests would need to go through the courts, and the courts wouldn’t accept an anonymous request. No administrative fees were charged.

LeBlanc makes $136,114 a year.

Spratlen makes $125,680 a year.

Sunshine rating: Partly cloudy, because the city usually requires a name with all requests.

Cortez Police Department

Roy Lane, police chief

The requester visited the police department to ask for the chief’s salary and a copy of his contract.

The requester was immediately directed to the Human Resources Department in City Hall.

In the Human Resources Department, the requester was initially told that only a salary range for the chief would be available.

When the requester asked for a specific legal exemption, the office worker asked the requester to file an open records request with the city clerk’s office.

After filling out the open records request, the requester received the documents the next day, and there was no charge.

Neither the clerk, nor the office workers ever asked the for the requester’s name or the reason for the request.

The documents stated the chief makes $87,214.40 per year. He does not have a contract. The documents stated Lane is an at-will employee of the city.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

Dolores School District

Scott Cooper, superintendent

Dolores Re-4A school officials granted an opportunity to physically examine Superintendent Scott Cooper’s contract, but an initial request for a copy of the agreement was denied. After inquiring with district Business Manager Karen Andrews, district secretary Laurie Arnett pulled a copy of the contract from the files. Arnett said notes from the contract could be taken, but she denied a request for a copy of the agreement.

“You’re welcome to review the contract,” Arnett said. “Anybody’s welcome to come in and look, but sorry, no, we can’t give you a copy. No pictures can be taken either.”

When questioned why a copy of the public records couldn’t be obtained, Arnett said it was against district policy.

“I don’t won’t to be giving out anything that I’m not supposed to,” Arnett said. “I want to follow policy before giving out anything.”

Arnett agreed to provide a copy of the policy barring any photocopy of the contract. To avoid any inconvenience of waiting in the office while she searched through a large three-ring binder, Arnett agreed to call once the policy was located.

Within a few hours, Andrews called to inform the requester that a copy of the superintendent’s contract could easily be e-mailed after a proper public records request, and the full contract was provided within minutes free of charge. The document shows that Cooper earns $95,095 annually, including 15 days of vacation, health insurance and membership fees for state and federal educators associations.

Sunshine rating: Sunny

Montezuma County

Dennis Spruell, sheriff

A public records request for the salary and benefits package of the Montezuma County sheriff was released in a timely manner.

Upon receiving a request in person, Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell reported his annual salary of $76,000. He explained the amount is set in state statutes for Category 3 counties, which includes Montezuma County. This was confirmed. The categories are based on population.

Later, an open records request was made in writing to the sheriff administration for Spruell’s benefits package. The records employee asked for the requester’s name and recorded it on a form. She asked what information was needed and was courteous.

The form was handed back to the requester, and he filled it out indicating the requested information. The form stated if records were deemed public, they would be provided within three business days.

On the fourth business day the requester called for an update on the records request. The clerk referred him to the county administration, which immediately provided the information.

The Montezuma County sheriff receives a health-care insurance plan that covers 100 percent of medical costs for his position only, no dependents. Under a retirement plan, the sheriff contributes 5 percent, and the county matches 5 percent.

Sunshine Rating: Sunny

Mancos Marshal’s Office

John Cox, marshal

Town of Mancos

Andrea Phillips, town manager

Upon asking for salary and employment contracts for Mancos Town Marshal John Cox and Mancos Town Administrator Andrea Phillips, the requester was presented with a public records request form.

The requester filled out the form and was told the town would contact the requester when the records were available. The clerk said that she was working on other matters that day, but would have the records available the next day. The first four pages were free and each page after that was 25 cents.

Sunshine rating: Sunny