CORA CONUNDRUM: Aurora councilman’s open records requests lead to testy public face-off with city staff

'I feel that there's so much more that council should be informed of (and) should know about,' Ward IV City Councilman Charlie Richardson said. 'I feel like council is a bunch of mushrooms, you know? Just feed in the dark'

AURORA | Several Aurora City Council members, led by Councilman Charlie Richardson, clashed with city management staff at a tempestuous council study session Monday night, claiming workers in City Manager George “Skip” Noe’s office have been providing the city’s elected officials with shoddy information.

At the end of the regularly scheduled meeting March 20, Richardson lashed out at city management, saying recent responses from city staffers to his calls for background information have driven him to file open records requests in lieu of asking for a council report, which is the typical course of action for council members who desire generic information on particular issues. Richardson said heavily redacted responses paired with a lack of speed and clarity have led him to file several recent records requests, which are often referred to as CORA requests, shorthand for the Colorado Open Records Act.

Richardson, who served as the longtime City Attorney before being elected to council in 2015, said his requests have ranged from inquiries about public funds being used for an upcoming, voluntary trip for city council members to South Korea, salaries for city management staff, private sector funds being used to support the city’s Sister City Program and details regarding an alleged wolf-hybrid dog named Capone, who has been in the control of Aurora’s Animal Services Division for nearly one month.

“I sought information from the city administration — I don’t feel I got all the information I had requested,” Richardson said. “…I have recently been hit with ‘Unless you get six members of council, the city administration is not going to respond’ to some of my requests, so that has driven me to CORA requests, which I did in this instance.”

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Noe spurned Richardson’s claims.

“The primary point or issue that Council Member Richardson repeatedly made last night is that somehow in his view he is being asked to produce six votes, or majority council support, to get information, and that’s just simply not true — I mean it’s just not,” Noe said. “I went back through all of my correspondence from me to Council Member Richardson since he was elected and I cannot find a single time when he was asked to provide a majority council support to give him information.”

But it was a recent request on the implementation of a traffic sign near an exit from the Costco store on East Florida Avenue that proved particularly incendiary for Richardson. The council member claimed he had recently become barred from filing additional CORA requests in the city due to his unwillingness to pay for the Costco request.

Initially estimated to cost about $180 in staff time and printing fees, Richardson took exception to staff’s later estimations after the price ballooned to nearly $500.

“The only way you’re going to see exactly what happened is CORA,” Richardson said. “Now I thought that was worth $180 of my personal funds, I did. That’s my personal choice, but I balk at $491 for emails.”

Richardson initially made a council request on the topic, but was unimpressed with the results.

“I got a bunch of mumbo jumbo,” he said. “And it took me weeks to finally get the deputy city attorney to say this is a private sign, no tickets can be written.”

Richardson proceeded to craft a records request with the help of Assistant City Attorney Dan Lathers. Richardson’s initial inquiry on the Costco sign yielded 89,121 related documents, Lathers said, before a more specific request netted about 207 documents.

“One of the request terms was ‘left turn’ so when they put ‘left’ in, (that yields) ‘You left it here,’ ‘It was left in here,'” Lathers said. “It’s a very nonspecific request and it wasn’t conjunctive, so that leads to a large volume.”

Of those 207 related items, Lathers estimated about 150 were redacted, which irked Richardson.

“That made me extremely unhappy, at the same time they were asking for a total expenditure of $491 with no guarantee that I wouldn’t see blotches of black,” he said.

Attorneys for the city later clarified Richardson is not technically barred from filing any other CORA requests. But if Richardson declines to pick up his request and pay the associated fees within seven business days of filing it, the request will be deemed abandoned and closed by the city. Under the city’s open records policy, requestors who abandon queries will be noted by the city clerk’s office and may be required to pay a full deposit in advance of filing any future requests.

Richardson said that policy prohibits filing future requests due to the city’s far-reaching authority on imposing fees.

“That’s a legalistic farce because you are effectively barred, you are practically barred,” he said. “That is a ridiculous argument.”

The city has broad discretion related to open records requests. While the first hour of staff time devoted to a particular request is free, the requestor is charged $30 per hour for every ensuing hour of staff time a request demands, according to the city’s open records policy. Copies and printouts for records requests cost 25 cents per page, and the city can deliver the records in whatever format it deems fit, which could greatly change the cost of the documents. Records provided on a CD or DVD cannot exceed the cost of the disc, and a four-gigabyte thumb drive costs $4.

A proposed piece of legislation that would require documents compiled via open records requests to be easily searchable in a digital format is currently making its way through the state Legislature, but its fate remains unclear as state Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, want the bill to extend to courts, while Democrats, who control the State House, are weary of that expanded stipulation.

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan was adamant about nailing down a solution to the conundrum.

“This isn’t just a ‘Charlie Richardson, stop sign, Costco’ question,” he said. “It’s an ‘Anybody who walks in and makes a CORA request’ question.”

When filing a records request, council members are treated in the same way and face the same fees as any member of the public, according to City Attorney Mike Hyman.

Noe echoed Hyman’s claim, and added council members are eligible to receive proprietary city information if they use a computerized “council request system.”

“He doesn’t have to use the CORA process,” Noe said. “He could ask the same information from us as a staff and we would provide that information to him, or in most cases we would, as part of our normal responsibilities.”

Noe added Richardson recently received sealed documents related to the ongoing Capone case, which he would not have been able obtain through a CORA request.

“The documents he was given — he would not have been able to get those by CORA,” he said. “He asked about it and we provided those documents to him.”

Richardson initially complained the Capone report was incomplete due to heavy redactions, but was later shown all of the available information was, indeed, included, Noe said.

Noe said the city’s formal council request system is open to all council members and mirrors the timeline for CORA requests as inquiries are usually fielded by deputy city mangers and other city staff within 72 hours. Occasionally, more in-depth requests require an extension.

Council members can also request information from staff via email, although that process doesn’t operate on a strict timeline. Noe said requests that come via email are fielded on “a timely basis.”

He added Richardson has occasionally submitted requests via email and specifically asked the inquiry not to be entered into the formal council request system.

Near the conclusion of the Monday meeting, Hogan alluded to previous calls to address disputes about information dispensed by the city manager’s office, but said they’ve stalled.

“I know that we’ve had suggestions before that there ought to be a council-wide discussion about how we proceed on things and that perhaps we ought to have a facilitator involved, and as soon as the word facilitator is mentioned, half of council says, ‘Nope, I don’t want to be there, I’m not going to be a part of that discussion,'” Hogan said. “Well, if half of council doesn’t want to show up at that kind of discussion, why should we have that kind of discussion?

“And if anybody else walks in and makes the same CORA request and is going to be hit with the same bill, which I would agree with you, is probably an outrageous dollar amount, how do we address that?”

This isn’t the first time Richardson and others have pushed back against Noe. Efforts to oust Noe from his post due to alleged mistreatment of various council members, particularly the women who sit on council, have waxed and waned in recent years. Five councilwomen, the majority of whom still sit on council, unsuccessfully introduced a vote of “no confidence” in Noe two years ago, citing the city manager’s unfair treatment. Marked by reports of several, closed-door attempts to get Noe to resign and lengthy conversations about Noe’s leadership style at a council workshop last winter, that controversy lingered throughout 2015.

Council members agreed to re-up the recent discussion on CORA requests and council reports at an upcoming spring workshop session, following a suggestion from Councilwoman Renie Peterson.

“I think we need to work on some sort of policy of what our expectation is from our manager’s office,” she said.

Peterson has expressed recent frustration with city staff for circumventing her input when negotiating a potential lease with a homeless advocacy group in her ward.

City staff later rebuffed a call from Peterson to move the ongoing discussion to a closed-door executive session.

“This isn’t executive session material,” Hogan said. “This is public conversation material.”

Councilwoman Sally Mounier scolded city staffers for their treatment of Richardson.

“I wish that staff would remember we are elected officials who have a responsibility to our citizenry — we do not have a responsibility to city staff,” she said. “If I was a congressman, and if I had congressional staff that treated me the way (Richardson is) being treated – fired, fired, fired, rehire.”

Councilwoman Barb Cleland called on city staffers to approach council requests and records inquiries with equity.

“I just wish staff would treat each council member exactly the same way,” she said.

Richardson said he feels council is being kept out of the loop.

“I feel that there’s so much more that council should be informed of (and) should know about,” he said. “I feel like council is a bunch of mushrooms, you know? Just feed in the dark.”