NORWICH — A request for access to public records is making it difficult for city employees to do their jobs, city officials say, but the resident behind the request says the whole thing could have been avoided if the Selectboard members had been willing to speak to residents about their concerns.
Officials warn that requests for information are so voluminous and city offices are so understaffed that the situation threatens to cripple city operations.
“I don’t know how much our community appreciates the structural challenges that our city and other cities are facing in terms of labor shortages and how compromised we are to provide services,” said the chairman of the selection committee, Roger Arnold. “It’s not business as usual. These are very tense circumstances.
But Stuart Richards, the resident behind the requests under Vermont’s Open Records Act, said the situation could have been avoided if city staff or members of the Selectboard had answered residents’ questions. on city operations, which has become a regular feature of Selectboard’s public comment portion. Meet.
“It’s very unfortunate that they basically shut down the audience when they could have had a conversation that might have been productive,” Richards said.
Richards said there was not enough information released about the city’s efforts to address ongoing staffing issues in city departments, including staffing levels, recruitment and retention. Among the key unfilled positions is the Chief of Police. Residents also asked about the pace of work of a consulting firm supposed to help the city solve its human resources problems.
Richards, who has a long history of involvement in Norwich civic affairs, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Selectboard and the city, repeatedly submitting comments to the board for inclusion in the dossier meetings and attending meetings remotely only to express displeasure.
Richards’ public record request includes 15 separate requests. Some are for common items, such as copies of contracts, employee lists, and salary information. But other requests, such as a request for all correspondence between Selectboard members covering multiple topics, will include hundreds of emails, each of which will need to be reviewed by the city’s attorney before publication.
City manager Rod Francis said responding to Richards’ request will produce thousands of individual records.
“The city is committed to transparency,” said City Manager Rod Francis. “We will provide him with all the public documents he is entitled to receive, but it may not be the full range of information he is looking for. Typically, a public record request is narrow and focused. »
Arnold said the Selectboard is committed to addressing the city’s human resources challenges.
“Many members of the public have expressed their frustration,” Arnold said, adding that the board was working under the guidance of legal counsel. “The board is also frustrated with how long this is taking. But, in order to have the utmost respect and concern for all employees and everyone involved, to behave in a legal, ethical and moral manner, it requires a long process.
Arnold also pointed out that the city continues to work on ongoing priorities, including an election and work on roads and bridges, despite the staff shortage.
“Our employees continue to provide high quality services to the City of Norwich,” said Arnold. “We are facing strong inflationary pressures, labor shortages in most departments, and we have entered a new phase of the pandemic. We are facing real structural challenges.
Arnold and Francis submitted responses to some of Richards’ requests several weeks ago, but Richards said the effort was unsatisfactory.
“They’re going to have to comply and if they don’t comply, they’re going to have to comply,” Richards said.
Francis said he and his staff were busy Friday trying to keep up with requests. It places such a burden on city staff, Francis said, that some employees have had to put aside their routine work.
“The city council is caught up in this, the finance manager … other staff and the nominating committee,” Francis said. “That means they can’t do their usual job.”
Some of Richards’ requests do not appear to meet public records requirements, Francis said.
In the publication “A Guide to Vermont’s Public Records Laws,” outgoing Vermont Secretary of State James Condos cautions against confusing requests for public records with requests for information.
“The public has no right to demand that any official or employee research or create a document that does not exist,” Condos wrote.
Some of the information requested by Richards would require the city to perform analysis or research, Francis said, such as a request to: “Provide any documentation comparing Norwich’s pay rates with other cities for vacancies.”
Francis said the scale of the request raises the question of whether it is a legitimate document request.
“Is this an abuse of process? I think that’s the question,” Francis said. “We don’t dispute the need for open government.
He said records that meet the definition and can be obtained will be forwarded to Richards by Monday afternoon.
Late Monday afternoon, Richards said he received a document by email.
“Further records will be provided to you as they become available,” Miranda Bergmeier, assistant city manager, said in the email.
The cost of providing records is also involved. State law allows cities to charge a fee based on the cost of staff time to produce the record.
“We’re counting the time we’ve already put into it,” Francis said. “There are things he asks for that may be exempt, and others that are so broad, we would need to hire an IT specialist to estimate the cost involved. Because we expect this cost to be so high, we are unwilling to do this work until Mr. Richards accepts the cost.
Richards said he was not ready to comment on the dollar amount he would be willing to accept, only that the city would have to justify those costs.
“As long as they can justify the time, the charges will be what they are,” Richards said.
The Norwich Selectboard met in special session on Monday evening for an executive session to consult with their lawyer. More public comments were expected.
Darren Marcy can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3216.