If the health of an elected body can be measured by the level of communication among its members, the Fort Collins City Council would seem to be in a coma—at least that’s the impression a citizen would get after logging on to a so-called “public access” e-mail account set up by the city in 2003 so that elected officials’ e-mails, which are public records under state law, could be reviewed and inspected by their constituents.
In reality, though, almost all e-mail conversations between elected officials and city staff occur off the public grid. And unless a citizen was savvy enough to demand those e-mails under state public records laws, if indeed they even suspected the communications existed, such backdoor exchanges would remain unknown and unaccounted for.
Since June 30, only 15 e-mails initiated by a City Council member appear on the public-access account, along with another 60-some messages from the city’s communications staff detailing media interviews and other PR matters.
But behind the scenes, the council’s seven members have sent and received more than 7,000 messages in the same time period, the vast majority of which do not appear on the public-access account. The only way an interested citizen would know they exist at all is through a request under the Colorado Open Records Act. The city manager’s office, handed such a request by Face the State, estimated the cost of compiling e-mails for the past 90 days for public review to be more than $1,600. The effort would take at least two weeks.
The public-access account was set up in 2003 after local reporters pointed out that the city had no simple method for citizens or journalists to quickly check council members’ e-mail. E-mail is commonly used to debate issues, discuss matters before the city and respond to citizen complaints and inquiries; while many messages might be mundane, they nevertheless allow for a glimpse into council members’ personal interactions and thought processes. For years, the public-access account allowed an unfiltered view into the workings of government; the only exceptions were personnel matters considered to be confidential and generally not releasable under state law.
Yet, the city never adopted a formal policy of requiring e-mail to be routed through the public-access account; instead, said city spokeswoman Kelly DiMartino, it was only a “practice,” one that has become almost completely dormant.
The trouble is that the public—whom the public-access account purports to benefit—has no way of knowing that the messages on the now-anemic account are only a tiny fraction of the messages actually exchanged among city council members. Those asking to see the records aren’t told that thousands more exist and are only accessible through the expensive and time-consuming process of invoking open-records laws.
Because there is no formal policy requiring council members and other city staff to send their e-mail exchanges through the public-access account, it’s completely arbitrary which messages can be accessed instantaneously for free and which must be paid for. It all depends on whether the e-mailer chooses to route the message to the public portal or not. Most apparently choose not to.
“There’s not anything here that’s to try and hide anything,” said City Manager Darin Atteberry. “If ultimately where you’re headed is that it’s difficult to get access to e-mails from Fort Collins City Council, I would disagree with that. … If the average citizen walked in and said, ‘I’d like to see my council member’s e-mail,’ first of all, we would tell them that they could do a CORA (Colorado Open Records Act) request.”
Only, that wasn’t the first thing a Face the State reporter was told when he asked to see council e-mail. A city communications-department employee simply pointed to the public-access account, which must be viewed in person at City Hall; there was no mention that the information it contained only scratched the surface of what was available. Likewise, DiMartino, the city spokeswoman, conjectured that few e-mails turned up on the city’s public-access account because, “there are very few e-mail conversations going on amongst council members.”
That was also the take of one of the council members.
“The simple truth is that it’s remarkable, really, how little conversation is done between council members at this point,” said David Roy, the one elected official responsible for most of the 15 e-mails on the public-access account. “The good old days when we were rambunctious and embedded every waking thought through (e-mail) has been a long time. Truthfully, and this is no exaggeration, Kelly (Ohlson, the Mayor Pro Tem) has never sent an e-mail. Aislinn (Kottwitz) maybe has sent one to the group. … In terms of mulling over and looking at issues using e-mail as the prism, it just really isn’t happening, as you’ve noticed.”
Only after Face the State filed a Colorado Open Records Act request—on its own initiative, without any suggestion to do so from the city—was it revealed that there is, in fact, much more conversation occurring than the public-access account would indicate.
Fort Collins’ approach stands in contrast to policies at some other public bodies.
In Boulder, for example, citizens can sign up to a listserv, which forwards council members’ messages straight to their in-boxes. This system has been in place since at least the late 1990s. The Larimer County commissioners recently switched from an internal email system, which was only publicly accessible at the county courthouse, to a Google-based system that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can access on the Web.
A review of those municipalities’ publicly available e-mail shows the expected plethora of information that’s notably missing from Fort Collins’ system. The Boulder City Council averages two dozen back and forth e-mails about city business a month for the past six months; they’ve sent 31 in September alone. The in-boxes of the Larimer County Commissioners are crammed with hundreds meeting notices, e-mails from citizens and other sundry messages detailing the often-humdrum aspects of running a local government.
Compare that to the paltry 80-odd messages in Fort Collins’ public-access in-box over a three-month period—most of which are press releases and media updates—and it’s easy to see why some would have the impression that nothing is happening in Fort Collins.
Both Atteberry and DiMartino said the reason the public-access account has become at best ineffective (and at worst, misleading) is because of disuse. Hardly anyone utilized the public computer set aside for citizens at City Hall, to the point where the computer was eventually reassigned to an employee some years ago. Apparently, the vast majority of council members, and those within the city who e-mail them, simply stopped routing their messages through an account that no one used.
“(It) really had very little interest on the part of citizens,” Atteberry said. “Frankly, to my knowledge in the past couple of years, we’ve had no requests.”