Friday, July 14, 2006

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Springfield City Manager Bob Cumley wants the News-Leader to publish a lengthy criticism of the paper's Monday editorial, entitled "City's secrecy patterns troubling."

Cumley's response to the editorial was sent to city employees on Friday. The city manager said he sent it out "so everyone knows that I disagree with the assertions contained in the editorial."

Here 'tis, in its entirety:
The City of Springfield prides itself on providing open and honest communication with citizens. We routinely fulfill thousands of requests for information annually from both media and citizens. In 2005, 89 of those requests were filed under the Missouri Sunshine Law. Just three of those requests were denied as closed records.

Monday’s editorial ("City Secrecy Patterns Troubling") takes issue with three isolated and unrelated circumstances in which the News-Leader did not immediately receive information it requested. To then extrapolate that as a "pattern of secrecy" is a patently unfair characterization of the way we operate.

Our citizens deserve to know the facts of each situation.

One situation involved a request for police reports in connection with the death of a 13-year-old boy. Juvenile records are closed under state law, not city ordinance. This matter involves an ongoing investigation regarding the circumstances of the death. The News-Leader was provided some "incident report" information about the immediate facts and circumstances of the incident, but was not provided other details related to the investigation, consistent with the juvenile and Sunshine Law statutes. The News-Leader then filed a Sunshine Law request with an unverified "authorization" to release records. The City Attorney’s office recommended that the News-Leader file a "friendly" lawsuit and ask a judge to determine whether the record can be released. It has done so, and the City will promptly respond to the judge’s decision. We don’t believe it serves the taxpayers’ interests to invite lawsuits by knowingly releasing a juvenile record we believe to be closed.

The second situation involved release of a Health Department report regarding an alleged attack on a dog by a dog owned by a member of City Council. In this case, when the request was made the next day, the animal control officer had not yet filed the report. The officers had responded to about 60 calls on that particular day and had to transcribe hand-written notes into incident reports. These very busy officers are routinely allowed several days to complete reports. A supervisor transcribed this report in order to comply with this request for information. In addition, the older records related to this animal were reviewed for release, which is standard practice for records subject to court proceedings. The Sunshine Law grants three days to respond to requests and the City provided the records within that period.

The third situation is the most upsetting to us for a number of reasons. The News-Leader is requesting the name of the employee who was terminated in connection with the investigation into missing funds in the Municipal Court. This employee was terminated under an administrative action. The City Merit Rules include a number of reasons for which employees may be terminated through a progressive disciplinary process. Many of those causes involve no violations of the law. In this situation, the termination was not part of the separate criminal investigation and was not based on a violation of law.

City employees are well aware upon hiring that working for government involves sacrificing their privacy – anyone can learn our salaries, for instance. However, we strongly believe that even public employees are entitled to due process, including this person. We also believe that discipline should be applied in a fair and consistent manner. We do not routinely release records of administrative disciplinary procedures, even terminations. We believe we struck a reasonable balance in this case by releasing the fact that an employee was terminated and is no longer on the City payroll, while still respecting the rights of this individual, who, so far, remains innocent until proven otherwise. (As far as the editorial’s assertion that not naming the terminated employee puts all of the court employees under suspicion, if they are still working there, then they haven’t been the one terminated.)

As City employees, we are sickened by the fact that funds are missing and this investigation is even necessary, but the Sunshine Law makes a clear exception for protecting individual personnel records and the City makes no apologies for its refusal to divulge the name of the employee. If and when the criminal investigation warrants any charges in this case, the name of the individual will become public.

As City Manager, I have apologized to City Council and certainly apologize to the public. This is a violation of the public trust and we have pledged to prosecute any charges aggressively and seek all available restitution. The last thing we want is to hamper this investigation by releasing information sure to be challenged by attorneys.

In a democracy governed by laws, there are bound to be multiple interpretations of complex statutes like the Sunshine Law. On occasion, reasonable people may agree to disagree. These events represent a coincidence of timing, not a breakdown of the public trust. To use these three situations to discredit City employees and our overwhelmingly positive track record of openness and responsiveness is simply irresponsible and unjustified.
Cumley told city employees that his response will either run on Sunday or Wednesday, "when more space is available" in the newspaper.

13 comments:

notafinga said...

They will have to dial back Messenger's wordy columns to find space for all of that. But good for Cumley, and the PIO who wrote it. They needed to fire back hard. First of all Springfield does have a good team in charge of the government and these are not typical situations. And who can blame them for wanting to wash their hands of Sheila Wright. I'm sure the Council would love to do the same. The story with her dog is more a failure of the council and their bad policy as it relates to Pit Bulls than to some sort of cover up. The council was wrong in not observing the advice of the panel they empowered to look at the vicious dog issue. This is a prime example. Wright's dog is not a pit bull. It is a large dog who's owner sees no problem in leaving it out while away. These are the types of problems that dog ordinance should target, not breed specific ones. Wright doesn't know what else to do besides put up a gate. Well Mrs. Wright, put up the gate, or don't leave your dog home alone and outside.
Duh.

Anonymous said...

Way to be, Bob Cumley.

It is about time someone challenged the News-Leader for being so quick to scream and wail when it doesn't get its way immediately. I'm all for the public's right to know, free speech, the First Amendment, and other such freedoms, but lately it seems the newspaper has really been making an ass of itself with its self-righteous demands for various bits of information. (Remember the recent Drury "rapist" episode?)

It will be interesting to see if Bookstaver and his buddies have the balls (the humility?) to print Cumley's words unedited.

John Stone said...

Wait a minute ... in the most important thing ... hasn't an arrest been made in the case of embezzlement? If so, everyone is entitled to know the name of the accused ... Ron got in some hot water from his readers about this a couple of months ago.

Second, I think it was Wed on the 5 PM KY3 News that they showed a police report that clearly showed the name of the suspected employee ... so now it could be considered common knowledge.

Neither the N & L or the City can have it both ways when it come to matters of pubic interest.

The Libertarian Guy said...

This is yet another reason to have the audit done by McCaskill's office.

Add to that, the blunder w/the water pumps... three grand a day rent? They should've fixed the damned things MONTHS ago.

John Stone said...

CU did Stockton exactly back-asswards.

They designed the pumps in-house ... like the new power plant.

They contracted with someone who knew what they were doing to build the pipeline.

And since my word verification was emufu today, I was to reassure Ronbo that I have no intention of FU'ing an emu. A partridge, maybe ...

Anonymous said...

I understand Bob Cumley's point on the fired city employee. Employees do have rights and it's prudent to protect those rights. But I believe the Sunshine Law does ALLOW Cumley to release that name if the city finds there's a compelling public interest. Legal/lawsuit considerations always cloud that decision, so I'm not being critical. But a good reporter would simply make a Sunshine Law request for any and all city employees who have recently been released from City employment ... are no longer on the payroll as of such and such a date. Then do some leg work, connect the dots until you find the one (hopefully) who worked for muni court or an office close to this situation. It ain't rocket surgery.

Ron Davis said...

Anon: Or they could go to the jail log and find out who was booked on suspicion of the alleged theft.

But what happens then? The News-Leader, along with other mainstream media, won't make public the name of a suspect who isn't charged with a crime. All the Sunshine Law requests and footwork won't matter if the newspaper won't publish the name.

Anonymous said...

The paper's pretty much boxed itself into a corner on this one, so why even raise a stink? I want to hear Mr. Messenger explain why it's so important to have immediate access to information (a name) the paper will not publish. Springfield media have shown time and again they are largely content to wait for charges to be filed before they release a name, so they should live with the consequences. Otherwise, abandon this dogmatic policy and use it, only sparingly. It would not be hard to come up with some acceptible groundrules.

notafinga said...

First of all, why is everyone so hot to publish a name of anyone who hasn't been charged? We can take the appropriate actions to prosecute the individual and then jump all over the city like hounds for a lack of oversight, but let's not be hasty. Secondly, The CU pump issue has nothing to do with the city. It probably in all reality is not even CU's fault that the manufacurer didn't get the problem fixed. Sure it looks bad, but why just pound away on an issue without the facts? Or do we just do that now a
days ?

The Libertarian Guy said...

No, the pumps should've been fixed a LONG time ago, at least when the second one went out... now all three are out, and Spfd. taxpayers are coughing up three grand a day out of the city coffers (no pun intended) to rent replacements.

How can't it be CU's fault?

notafinga said...

I would venture that there is a rational explination that falls short of being motivvated by evil or incompetiance. This looks bad and is bad, but is it really more than just bad oversight? Is it worth more action than what CU itself will do to the people responsible? I'm not saying CU is a great entity, it's just that they do have a difficult job to maintain power and water to Spfd. May it not be the case that in the course of events the forces of chaos conspire to make that task more difficult than they can handle without incident?

Anonymous said...

I would certainly agree with the libertarian guy. Folks, this is the same CU that the voters just gave half a billion dollars to to try to build a powerplant that burns coal that may not be available. The pumps aren't out once, but twice or three times. What kind of junk did they buy that didn't have safety shut downs in it to keep from burning them up. Unbelievable.

The Libertarian Guy said...

Just one of many reasons for Struckhoff to get on the ball and certify those city audit petitions...