It was a telling moment.
Reporters were gathered in the City Administration Building on Jan. 12 for Mayor Steve Bach's monthly press conference. The mayor had just announced that he would soon be having a special meeting with City Council. It would be open to the public — as required by law — and we were all welcome to join.
But when an Indy reporter asked where to find an agenda for the meeting, the mayor balked. He didn't want the public to know what the meeting was about beforehand.
"I'd rather not have, I guess, the front page of a newspaper running some kind of a headline on, 'Here's what's going to be discussed tomorrow,'" he said.
Following an awkward pause, and a couple more questions, the mayor answered another reporter's question: "Can you just summarize some of the main points of why you wanted to conduct this conference today?"
Bach was back in his comfort zone. He smiled and ran through his well-polished talking points on transparency.
"I ran on a platform that included engaging with the community to build a regular two-way dialogue, to rebuild trust in city government, and to harness the power of great ideas all across the city," he said. "This is one way to do that."
Ironic? Sure. But it wasn't the mayor's first two-step with transparency. In fact, since he took office last June, the mayor seems to have struggled with how much he wants the people to know.
In the news business, the law is often on your side.
It's the only profession given specific protections in the Bill of Rights, and both federal and state laws protect the journalist's right to know what's going on in government. The Colorado Open Records Act says governments must answer a citizen's request for information within three business days. Seven days is allowed if the request meets certain criteria laid out by law.
However, the city hasn't been following that law. At the time of this writing, the Independent had waited 16 days for an answer to a CORA request.
"Due to the scope of the request, the amount of emails to review and the limited staff time available to process the documents, this particular request is taking an unusually long time," city spokesman John Leavitt wrote Feb. 2. "We remain committed to transparency, openness and following open records laws."
City spokesperson Cindy Aubrey also said in an e-mail that the request had taken "40 hours plus" and four staff people to fulfill, mostly because lawyers reviewed and redacted from requested e-mails.
Media experts, however, note that there's nothing in the law that says the release of records can be delayed. Al Tompkins, senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for journalism in St. Petersburg, Fla., says he's gravely concerned with a growing number of open records law violations by governments across the country. The Indy's example is typical, he says.
"That's stonewalling," he says, after being given an explanation of the situation. "It's taking time to respond when it shouldn't take time to respond."
We aren't the only ones experiencing problems. The Gazette has seen several of its CORAs — no doubt made with the intent of producing an exclusive news story — released to every media outlet in town.
"[W]henever there is a CORA of general interest," Leavitt wrote, "such as the salaries of all employees, we'll likely share it."
The practice isn't illegal, but it is unusual, and may be intended to discourage scoop-seeking journalists from asking questions. Tompkins certainly thinks so.
"It smells of punitive action," he says.
Some of Bach's first moves included sending the previous communications director packing, and instructing all city employees not to talk to the media without having received prior permission from him.
Bach has distanced himself from those early moves. And staff, with the notable exception of staff in the city attorney's office, have generally been allowed to speak with media.
Speaking with the mayor himself, however, has been more difficult. When he first came to office, Bach announced publicly that all journalists had his cell phone number. But he quietly changed that number and declined to give his new number to the Independent.
The mayor does make himself available at monthly press conferences, and has scheduled a town hall meeting. He is genial when approached in public encounters. But even given days warning, it's often "impossible" to schedule even a short phone conversation with him, as it was for this story.
Non-journalists have also expressed frustration with the mayor's apparently packed calendar. Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, which heads the effort to battle homelessness in the city, noted in a recent e-mail to the mayor, "I have not been able to secure an appointment to see you since you were inaugurated."
Why the mayor's so busy is another mystery. Bach considers many appointments "private" and refuses to disclose his full calendar to media. And you can't just walk into his office at the City Administration Building: Despite having ditched the sign-in policy on the building's ground level, Bach spent nearly $1,500 in taxpayer money to install a buzz-in security system for his office.
Also in the dark
City Councilors have also found it difficult to extract information. Councilors Lisa Czelatdko, Bernie Herpin and others have complained that tasks as simple as answering questions for constituents have turned into bureaucratic ordeals.
Despite recent assurances from Bach that lines of communications would be opening up, Czelatdko said Feb. 2, "As far as communication, nothing has changed."
Czelatdko also noted that she and several other Councilors didn't hear about Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy Johnson's recent resignation until they were copied on a press release. When she expressed her outrage to staff, Czelatdko says, she was told that the city staff didn't have the right e-mail addresses for Council members.
The mayor's process of appointing key staff has been another source of strife. Czelatdko notes that she learned of Police Chief Pete Carey's appointment on the day Council was to approve it. Same with City Attorney Chris Melcher. Now, the freshman Councilor says, the mayor's search for a finance director has been shrouded in secrecy, with Councilors unable to view résumés.
Until monthly public meetings between the mayor and Council were planned recently, the mayor also declined to discuss important matters with the Council in public — though he's always given a chance to do so at Council meetings. Rather, Bach met with one or two Councilors, carefully avoiding state laws that say a meeting between three or more Councilors must be conducted in public.
Bach discussed that strategy at the recent news conference.
"In my early months here, I initiated meetings with Councilors one-on-one and two-on-one, and we tried that. And I found I had feedback from some Councilors telling me they didn't feel involved in the big issues. And part of that is trying to have the same conversation with nine people separately on important matters."
The mayor does seem ready to take a different approach on those meetings. And media did, after some badgering, get that aforementioned agenda to the first such meeting in advance.
Bach's new chief of staff, Laura Neumann, says she, too, wants transparency to be a priority.
"Admittedly it is a new process for me; coming from the private sector where so much was kept confidential, especially employee-related matters," she writes in an e-mail. "However, I understand the need for transparency in the public sector."