As we continue our series of weekly (or more-or-less weekly) interviews with Sunshine Activists from around the country, we’re delighted to introduce you to Peggy Tibbetts.
Peggy blogs at From The Styx and lives in Silt, Colorado.
This is a really fascinating interview–especially the information about some of the unfair attitudes Peggy has bumped into as a blogger and FOIAer.
- What year did you file your first open records request?
This year, June 2007. I’m very much a newbie to this type of citizen action.
- What documents were you looking for?
I wanted a copy of Detective Paul Taylor’s investigation report because I felt the public had a right to know what was contained in his report. The Town Treasurer had just been fired. And the Town Administrator and Community Development Director both resigned from their positions. I found out that the Town Administrator had ordered an investigation into employee meddling and harassment by two town board members. Then I heard that board members were planning to keep the investigation report under wraps and not release it to the public.
- Did you get those documents?
I didn’t get the report on my first try. The Town Administrator called me and said he was waiting on further investigation into the matter, either by the Sheriff’s Dept or CIRSA (Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency), therefore the investigation remained open pending that further investigation, so he was not at liberty to release that initial investigation report. I waited a week or so, then I found out that any further investigations had been cancelled. So I put in another request. I received a redacted version of the report, with the names of the employees removed. The Town Administrator explained that under the Colorado Open Records Act, confidential employee information can be withheld.
- Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition has talked about having “a FOI moment”. Have you had “a FOI moment” and can you describe it?
My “FOI moment” was at the June 11 (2007) Board of Trustees Meeting, in open session, Mayor Pro-Tem Tod Tibbetts made a motion for the Board to go into Executive Session (closed session) to discuss confidential documents which were received by the Trustees. Mayor Dave Moore, in open session, responded by saying he was against discussing the issues (referenced in the confidential documents). He said he had a problem with Officer Paul Taylor’s “illegal investigation”. He added that he felt the Board should be done with this and the issues should just “go away”. Tibbetts’ motion was voted down.
Since Tod Tibbetts is my husband I asked him after the meeting about the confidential documents and the “illegal investigation”. He said the other board members wanted to keep the investigation confidential but he didn’t agree with their decision. He felt the public had the right to see the investigation report. All this secrecy struck me as undemocratic and unethical. Because the Mayor had mentioned the investigation in open session, that made it part of the public record. I decided to file an information request to get my hands on that investigation report.
- What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?
None really. The Town Administrator and Town Clerk have both been cooperative about information requests. I think they were eager to get this information to the public.
- How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?
My requests were always responded to within the 72-hour waiting period, with either the information I requested or an explanation for the delay.
- About how many open records requests have you filed?
I have filed 3 requests. Two requests for the investigation report. And another request for all the emails from the Mayor to the Town Administrator and Community Development Director for the past year.
- How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?
I have been posting them on my blog, From the Styx. I also told three local newspaper reporters. One of the reporters, Mike McKibbon has done a couple stories about the documents in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
- Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?
The Mayor complained to the Town Attorney that I was posting confidential information on my blog. But the information I posted was information I received as a result of filing the open records requests. The Town Attorney looked into his complaint but found I hadn’t posted any confidential information. Yet he persists in accusing me of violating confidentiality to anyone who will listen. He refers to the information requests as a “witch hunt”.
- What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?
I am part of a committee to recall the Mayor for repeatedly violating state statutes and town ordinances. By obtaining the investigation report and the Mayor’s emails and posting them on my blog, and with some help from Mike McKibbon’s articles in The Daily Sentinel, we have been able to build a strong case against the Mayor and opened the public’s eyes to the secrecy and violations in town government. As a result we gathered 128 signatures (many more than the 111 required) to move the recall forward. The signatures have been verified by the Town Clerk and we succeeded in moving the recall forward to an election.
- Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?
In conversations with the local reporters I found them to be rather dismissive of the information I obtained through my open records requests. One reporter asked if I was publishing confidential information. Another reporter told me that what I’m doing is not journalism because I don’t present both sides of the story. I replied that I publish facts and there are not two sets of facts.
- What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?
Pay attention. Ask questions. For example, the investigation report that I requested and published would never have seen the light of day, which is what the majority of board members wanted to happen, if I had not started asking questions about the upheaval with the town staff. The issues surrounding the resignations and firing of staff had not been clearly outlined for the public. So I started asking questions. Even though my husband is on the town board and certainly steered me in the right direction, that simply reveals that more often than not, when dealing with public officials, you can find at least one person who believes strongly in the public’s right know what’s going on.
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
I feel like I’m still learning. So I need to know a lot more. What stands out the most to me right now is how lazy some reporters can be. We have begged reporters to follow the leads obtained from the information requests, to make their own information requests. But they’ve shown only mild interest in the information we have obtained and made public. And they have made no information requests of their own.
For example, the Mayor put up a fence without a permit. When the reporter asked him about it, he said he wasn’t required to get a permit and that no fence permits had been issued in the town. The reporter just took his word for it. So Tod put in an information request to find out the number of fence permits issued in the past 4 years and came up with 77. But the reporter didn’t seek out any further information and didn’t publish the number of fence permits issued, which would have contradicted the Mayor’s statements.
- If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?
I think the Colorado Open Records Act should have an exception to the employee confidentiality rule when it involves elected town officials’ interactions with employees.
- Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?
- Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?
Thanks so much, Peggy!