Denver’s ‘transparency’ portal skips secret taxpayer-funded meals


http://watchdog.org/231270/denvers-transparency-portal/

In his 2013 State of the City speech, Mayor Michael Hancock touted a new city website to help residents determine how officials spend tax money.

“We will also fulfill our promise to be more transparent,” he told supporters, reporters and city staff. “In just a few short days, we will unveil an online tool that will show exactly how the city is spending your money. Through Transparent Denver, residents will have real-time access to view the city’s checkbook and so much more.”

While Transparent Denver does provide substantial information about many city expenses, Watchdog.org found that two departments — the Denver City Attorney’s office and the troubled Denver Human Services department — are using privacy concerns to redact information about items that should likely be public, such as employees eating out on the taxpayers’ dime.

Photo courtesy Denver City website

SILENT EATER: Denver city attorney Scott Martinez didn’t want to talk about why some taxpayer funded meals were confidential.

When Watchdog.org asked for copies of the receipts, the departments’ staff said it would take hours of staff time and, in the case of Human Services, hundreds of dollars to produce the documents.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said unless the documents involve city attorney privileged opinions or human service clients, the information should be readily available.

“It really shouldn’t be a such complex process to review expense reports,” he said after Watchdog.org told him about the privacy notations in Transparency Denver and the price tags department officials put on the search. “There shouldn’t be a lot in there that requires redaction.”

At the city attorney’s office, items like $668 at Anthony’s Pizza, $2,000 at caterer Biscuits and Berries and more than $1,200 for two expenses at Three Tomatoes Catering all were listed, but the reasons for the taxpayer-funded meals were not. Those items had the notation: “Data not displayed since it may contain confidential information.

To pull the 14 receipts Watchdog.org requested, the city attorney’s office said it would cost $60 and take three hours of staff time. City Attorney Scott Martinez did not respond to calls, emails and even a visit to his office to explain why his staff could only pull five receipts an hour.

RELATED: Taxpayer-funded meals, events skyrocket under Hancock administration.

At human services, staff wanted $240 to provide 32 expense justifications, including “confidential” labeled items like $1,260 for two meals at Cheesecake Denver, presumably Cheesecake Factory, $800 at Santiago’s Mexican Restaurant and $720 at Chipotle.

Department spokeswoman Julie Smith justified requiring taxpayers to pay hundreds of dollars to determine what city employees are doing with their money by saying it costs staff time to retrieve and review the records. Taxpayers are already paying for staff salaries, but state law allows departments to charge for records searches that the government agency maintains will take more than an hour.

“The information you requested is a couple years old, is kept in hard copy and is now in storage,” she wrote in an email exchange, adding that research and redaction took 16 hours but the city would only charge for the nine hours she initially estimated it would take to produce the receipts. “It took our staff some time to research, locate and pull the information and, as with most anything we do with DHS, it all had to be reviewed and any confidential client information redacted.”

Smith would not do a phone interview or provide staff to talk about the specifics, and human services director Don Mares initially returned a email saying he would look into the matter but didn’t follow up.

Smith responded to a follow up email to Mares, reiterating the cost justification and conceding that some of the receipts were for employee appreciation events, though others have names of human service clients that must be redacted. She did not explain why the employee meals are confidential on the transparency website.

By contrast, the city’s finance department was able to pull 51 receipts and purchasing card expenses for $60.

Media attorney Steve Zansberg, who is president of CFOIC, said it is difficult to determine whether governments are using high figures to prevent access to records or if it really takes that much time to produce the receipts.

“There’s not much you can do to test the veracity of the amount of time a government agency says it take to perform the task to retrieve a particular document,” he said, adding some news media have asked to have a camera or staff member oversee the process but are often rebuffed.

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