Delphi City Council President Gayle Conner has unsuccessfully requested public information at different occasions from Delphi Clerk-Treasurer Leanne Aldrich. Ultimately, Conner filed a formal complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s Office. In the complaint, Conner stated she verbally requested encumbrance information from Aldrich in January of this year at a City Council meeting. She said information from the Indiana State Board of Accounts (SBOA) indicated the information she requested should have already been entered into the minutes of a Council meeting.

Conner further stated in the complaint she requested the same information on Feb. 22, this time in an email. Conner requested a copy of the same documentation, for the same seven encumbrances, on June 8. She indicated the seven encumbrances were represented by claims that appeared on the most recent Board of Works docket. She received an email response from Clerk Aldrich indicating her request for public information would be fulfilled in Aldrich’s usual turn-around time.

Conner states in her complaint the usual “turn-around time” has been one week when requested information had been supplied. However, by July 21, Conner had received no requested records and she decided to file a formal complaint with the state.

The Clerk engaged Makenzie Martin of the law firm of Diener & Martin, Delphi, to develop a response to the complaint. The claims docket approved at the Aug. 17, 2020, Board of Works meeting indicates the cost for that service was $900.

The response states, “The City admits” information was requested at a City Council meeting. However, the response also notes the request was not “for a person to inspect or copy the public records of the public agency…” Conner asked for the information to be provided at the February 2020 City Council meeting.

“The City further notes that, and according to Conner’s own statement, this was merely a request for documentation to be brought before the Council,” reads the response.

Aldrich contends no votes were taken by the City Council to request the information regarding the encumbrances and Conner “was not authorized by the Common Council to make such a request, as evidenced by a lack of vote on the matter.” Again, it was noted Conner did not use the “specific language, ‘inspect’ or ‘copy’ nor were synonyms to such words made in the request.”

“The City contends that even if the Public Access Counselor finds such request was to inspect and/or copy public records, despite not meeting any of the statutory and procedural requirements, that such ‘request’ was not made during the regular business hours of the agency. In support thereof, the City notes that it has posted on a bulletin, clearly, the City and agency hours, which are Monday Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 7:30 a.m. top 4:30 p.m. and Wednesday from 7:30 a.m. to Noon.”

The response from Public Access Counselor Luke Britt came in the form of an opinion letter, as opposed to a formal advisory opinion.

“The main reason for issuing opinions in this way is to limit furthering resentment and discontent between the parties, when both complainant and respondent are public officials or entities,” Britt wrote. “The main goal of this office is to provide education, guidance and advice to constituents and their representative officials in regard to transparency and its role in good governance. Hence the title, public access counselor.”

“From the information provided, it appears as if there is some confusion as to the responsibilities of a municipal bureaucracy and how access to information is critical to its smooth operation,” Britt continued.

“For starters, pursuant to IC 36-4-8-7 et. al, the city legislative body – of which you are president pro tem – is the final step in the claim approval process,” Britt wrote to Conner. “Basic notions of checks and balances would dictate that the council be fully informed as to the bills and invoices. I believe this gets to the heart of your dispute.”

Britt said in his written response that “the city appears to argue, that because the council did not vote to request this information or make a formal public records request, it is not entitled to it.”

He specifically noted the complaint was directed exclusively to the clerk-treasurer and not the city executive (mayor).

“It is indeed irregular to have a municipality’s executive (mayor) argue on behalf of a separately elected local official,” Britt wrote.

Britt continued stating that the city’s response “is very much an exercise in the discussion of municipal bureaucratic semantics.” He said the city’s response “seems to miss the point of the complaint” which was that a duly elected public official did not receive what it needed from the fiscal officer.

“The free flow of information between government officers should be easy and fast,” Britt continued. “In order for them (government officials) to do their jobs, they require unencumbered access to documentation. Not only does this serve the public efficiently, it prevents malfeasance.”

“If everything is on the up and up, there is no need to play hide-the-ball with documents,” Britt continued in his written opinion letter.

Britt said the office holder should provide documents upon demand “in relatively short order.”

“A council should not be required to vote or submit public records requests or jump through ceremonial hoops to get this information,” the Public Access Counselor continued. “It is the duty of the clerk, as fiscal officer, to adequately maintain the city’s finances, something it cannot do without a free exchange of information with other government offices,” Britt concluded. “The requests were clear. They did not need to be specially labeled in order for the clerk to interpret them as requests for documents.”
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