Constant dollars

City of St. Louis flirts with sun law violations, critics say | St. Louis Metro News | Saint Louis

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People requesting records from the city of St. Louis complain of long delays and obstruction by authorities.

Many people who regularly request public records from the City of St. Louis say officials who handle public records treat requests like a “game” and issue “bullshit” responses as to why the records can’t be put up. available.

“It’s constant nonsense and a game,” says attorney Emily Perez, who requests public records on behalf of clients as part of her job.

She points out that a still-pending request she made in April for certain emails between officials is typical of the frustrating battle with the city for basic public information.

On April 11, Perez, working on behalf of a client, requested copies of emails between John Moten, the city’s acting director of personnel, and director of public safety Dan Isom over a three-week period. .

The initial response was that the Personnel Department records keeper did not have enough information to respond to the request.

Perez responded by asking how this was possible, she just wanted emails to be exchanged between two people between a specific time period.

The Records Custodian then responded that “additional time is required to locate and identify any records meeting your request, and…a review of such records will be conducted to determine whether such records contain information otherwise protected by law.” The recordings, if any, would be available no earlier than May 25, about six weeks from now, according to the message.

On May 25, the city sent Perez an invoice for her request and she mailed a check the same day.

Two weeks later, having not received the records, she requested an update.

The city sent Perez a response containing the same textual language it had received previously: “Additional time is required to locate and identify any records that meet your request…”

The ministry would need until July 15, an additional six weeks, to process the files.

Perez emailed back, saying she had received that exact answer once before. In short, she wondered, why was it taking longer for documents that had already been located to be located again?

About six weeks passed without her getting an answer. An update from the city arrived on July 15 and it was the familiar, what it calls “canned” response: “additional time is needed…”.

The new date by which his files should be ready: August 25, 2022, more than 20 weeks after his initial request.

“It seems to me that instead of doing their best to live up to the spirit of Sunshine Law, their MO is to play the game and see how far they can push things and get away with things that could be permitted by law,” Perez said.

As further evidence of this “game,” Perez cites another recent request she made for a salary study the city had commissioned.

Her request was initially denied, so she filed a complaint with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a man few consider a friend of the state’s Sunshine Law.

The attorney general’s office, however, sent a letter to the city requesting more information and giving them a specific time frame by which to respond.

“The city provided me with the salary study around four o’clock in the afternoon of the very last day they had to respond to the attorney general’s letter,” Perez said.

Attorney Mark Pedroli said he, too, was frustrated with the city’s process for handling Sunshine claims.

“While the current mayor may have been one of the most transparent mayors in recent history, the system put in place by the alderman’s office to respond to Sunshine’s requests is completely dysfunctional. It violates the law. Sunshine on an almost daily basis, and nothing short of tearing it down and rebuilding it will be Sunshine law compliant,” Pedroli says. “They’re lucky they’ve escaped a class action lawsuit at this point.”

The Sunshine Law requires records custodians to respond to a request for records “as soon as possible but no later than three business days” after receipt, according to the state attorney general. If the records cannot be produced within three days, the records custodian must “explain why there is a delay and provide the earliest date the records will be available”.

Journalists also expressed annoyance with the city’s handling of public records requests.

In November, the former Post-shipment and current Propublica reporter Jeremy Kohler wrote about the issue on Twitter saying it would take six weeks for the recordings he requested to be converted to PDF.

He ended the tweet by saying, “This is not legal.”

Perez says she, too, was told that the file conversion process will take much longer than she thinks reasonable.

The city handles its document requests using a program from Illinois-based GOVQA. Anyone who creates an account can use the GOVQA interface to request registrations from nearly 40 different departments in the city of St. Louis.

Nick Desideri, communications director for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, says each of these departments has its own records custodian, and only one person, the city’s Sunshine Law Coordinator, acts as liaison between the GOVQA platform and record depositories. . This Sunshine Law coordinator works for city councilor Sheena Hamilton.

Desideri says the reason there may still be a significant delay even after the plaintiff has paid the fees for the records is that the city was doing all the work of collecting and drafting the records just so the fees wouldn’t be paid, making prep work a waste of resources.

But now the files are not sorted or reviewed until the applicant has paid the fees.

Desideri adds that the alderman’s office has held several trainings for employees who process requests for public records.

As for intentionally obstructive process issues — what Perez called the city playing games — Desideri says such complaints should be directed to the records keeper of the department in question, for whom the Sunshine Law Coordinator of the town is really just a go-between.

Regardless of who is to blame, it’s not just lawyers and journalists complaining about the city’s handling of registration applications.

Tim Sommerfelt is an EMT in Cleveland who is the secretary of a first responders union there. He read an article from July 10, 2022 in the St. Louis Post-shipment on the inefficiencies of the City of St. Louis EMS. The article, by Jacob Barker, cited a 2014 report the city had commissioned about its EMS and that the Job had later obtained a copy of. Sommerfelt thought there would be no problem getting his hands on a copy as well.

“Often we can learn a lot from other cities,” says Sommerfelt. “When I see a report like this, I’m like, ‘well, let’s get a copy of the actual report.'”

Using the GOVQA platform, Sommerfelt selected “Fire Department – EMS” as the department he was seeking records from and made his request.

The request was denied. The response stated that there were “no reactive files” and encouraged Sommerfelt to resubmit his request to the “Fire Department – Investigations”.

A request to the “Fire Department – Investigations” was also refused, this time with an explanation difficult to analyze. Sommerfelt was told he had to resubmit the request, this time to the “St. Louis City Department which commissioned and paid for the study”.

But, Sommerfelt had no idea which department it was. And with his recording requests only returning refusals, he didn’t know how to figure it out.

Sommerfelt says he felt the city was “intentionally difficult”.

“You’ve already published the report, so there’s no need to redact it,” Sommerfelt says. “We know it’s a public record, and you gave it to someone, so why can’t I just get a copy?”

Sommerfelt says he spoke on the phone with the city’s Sunshine Law coordinator. He describes the conversation as “heated”.

Sommerfelt submitted the request again, this time to about 35 different city departments.

The Department of Public Safety responded to Sommerfelt’s request and sent him the report.

“There was nothing in [the report] it was controversial, so to speak,” says Sommerfelt. “There was nothing redacted. I don’t really know what the problem was.”

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