Man crusades for county e-mails
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. Only one person seems to know exactly what Lucius O’Dell is looking for in requesting years worth of e-mails from some Western Slope county commissioners.That’s O’Dell, and he isn’t talking. But one thing is becoming clear. The price he may have to pay to obtain those records won’t be cheap.Garfield County commissioners this week unanimously decided against charging less than the actual cost of O’Dell’s request for five years of public e-mail correspondence from Commissioner Trési Houpt.That means O’Dell would have to come up with about $3,700, and perhaps significantly more, to see the e-mails. San Miguel County commissioners recently declined to waive or reduce the cost for providing five years of e-mails involving Commissioner Art Goodtimes. The county says complying with O’Dell’s request will cost him about $2,500.O’Dell, whose correspondence to Garfield County carries a Berthoud mailing address, also has targeted the e-mails of all three commissioners in Gunnison County. Just what he’s up to remains a mystery. O’Dell has failed to respond to interview requests from the Post Independent and other media. That’s left Houpt, Goodtimes and others to speculate as to O’Dell’s motives, which they believe may be partisan, and possibly related to oil and gas issues.
O’Dell worked during this spring’s state legislative session as executive director of the Republican Study Committee of Colorado, a group of Republican state lawmakers espousing a conservative agenda. Houpt and all the targeted Gunnison commissioners are Democrats; Goodtimes is a Green Party member.However, the committee is disavowing any connection with O’Dell’s effort.”This has nothing to do with RSCC,” said state Rep. Kent Lambert, the committee’s chairman.He said O’Dell’s work for the group stopped at the end of the legislative session.”We’re not asking for the information. I don’t even know what the issue is” that O’Dell is pursuing, Lambert said.Some targets of the request think it may be related to oil and gas because of Gunnison County’s involvement in a legal case testing its ability to regulate the industry, Houpt’s recent and successful effort to be appointed to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and Goodtimes’ positions on energy issues.If O’Dell’s efforts are related to oil and gas, that comes as news to Greg Schnacke of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry group.”It’s not COGA-related. We’re not involved with any of that. I don’t even know the guy you’re talking about,” Schnacke said.O’Dell’s first letter to Garfield County requesting the e-mails suggested at least a partial motive. He called it a “random sample and test” of the effectiveness of Colorado’s open records law and the county’s responsiveness to it. He also indicated a willingness to pay “reasonable” expenses related to the request.On June 20, county attorney Don Deford wrote to O’Dell that the county would have to review about 7,500 e-mails to remove information that by law can be kept confidential. He determined that the work probably would take 20 hours each for Houpt, an attorney and paralegal to accomplish, with information technology staff also having to assist.The $3,687 estimate that Deford came up with for that work doesn’t include the unknown but probably significant amount of money that would be required to hire a computer expert to reproduce e-mails that have been purged from its system, he said.O’Dell wrote back that the county is violating the law and isn’t allowed to bill for attorney fees or staff time. He wrote that in making similar requests of other counties and cities he has “not seen the contemptuous treatment” he received from Garfield County.He also wrote that he might refile his request under a new state law allowing him to pay 25 cents per page for his requested records. The old law allowed charges up to $1.25 per page but also permitted an additional “reasonable fee” to be charged.
But Deford said that new law didn’t change how requests for e-mails should be handled. County commissioners this week – including Republicans John Martin and Larry McCown – decided that they needed to remain consistent with how they’ve dealt with similar requests in the past. The county has charged the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado thousands of dollars for the cost of producing records related to its suit against county Sheriff Lou Vallario over inmate treatment at the jail.State law allows exemptions to some charges for producing records when the exemptions are provided consistently and the records are used for public purposes by journalists, nonprofits and academic researchers. Steven Zwick, San Miguel county attorney, said county commissioners lacked enough information from O’Dell to determine if his request met the public purpose standard and so they decided against reducing or waiving fees under that clause. Neither San Miguel nor Garfield officials have heard back from O’Dell since their commissioners made their decisions. Thomas Dill, deputy Gunnison County attorney, said Gunnison didn’t charge O’Dell up front in complying with a request for three years worth of e-mails from its commissioners. The reason was that it had no policy for seeking payment for such requests. However, he said county still may ask O’Dell to abide by his offer to pay reasonable costs, and the county hopes to draw up a policy that can be used when future requests arise.Houpt said she doesn’t have a problem producing her e-mails. “But as a county we want to make sure that the cost of doing that is paid up front,” she said.She said such requests are time-consuming, and taxpayers shouldn’t end up footing the bill.She called O’Dell’s request “onerous.””I think he’s fishing for something because he gave no solid reason for making this request, so it’s offensive but I have nothing to hide,” she said.She said she’s been aware since her days on the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 board that any public record request could extend to e-mails.Still, she said, “I hope it isn’t beginning to be used as a tool for political purposes because then we’ll have both sides making requests when there’s a controversial issue and that detracts from the job that needs to be done.”Contact Dennis Webb: email@example.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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