Of lemonade stands and Mountain Home government transparency

Of lemonade stands and Mountain Home government transparency

by
Dustin Hurst
September 15, 2016
Dustin Hurst
Author Image
September 15, 2016

If Mountain Home resident, mother and Air Force veteran Wendy Mastroeni had $2,600 to blow, she wouldn’t spend it on public records.

Instead, if she had that sort of cash stashed away, she said she would catch up on bills, save some and invest in her family’s well-being.

The mother of four has grown into something of a government watchdog in her community. Now she faces a difficult -- and potentially costly -- choice: Pay more than $2,600 to the city of Mountain Home for a public records request, or abandon an effort to investigate how a local official lures businesses to the town.

In late August, Mastroeni submitted a public records request to the city of Mountain Home. She sought numerous records, including police reports, expense reports, call logs and emails, which were sent and received between January and August 2016 by Mountain Home Economic Development Director Paula Riggs.

City Clerk Nina Patterson turned over some of the records, asked for further clarification on some items and delivered a significant blow to Mastroeni’s effort: the city would have to charge her more than $2,600 to send Riggs’ 7,200 emails.

For her part, Patterson isn’t using the hefty price tag to discourage Mastroeni from having the records. Instead, she’s following an Idaho law that protects special business interests from having some of their interactions with government disclosed to the public.

Specifically, the law exempts from disclosure records “for the specific purpose of assisting a person to locate, maintain, invest in, or expand business operations in the state of Idaho.”

Due to that exemption, city officials would have to review each email to ensure the message doesn’t include proprietary or otherwise private information. For that email review, Patterson estimated the bill at $2,363.20, a quote she thought might even discount the work involved.

Patterson’s response about the email-screening cost flabbergasted Mastroeni.

“Who has that kind of money to fling around?” she asked. She quickly revised her records request, paring it significantly to hopefully cut costs.

Still, Patterson held firm. Even accounting for the reduced workload, Patterson estimated the email-screening bill at the $2,362.20 figure.

Mastroeni couldn’t fork over the cash, so she opted to apply for a fee waiver. Idaho code allows that if the requesting party can demonstrate she doesn’t have assets to pay, that the records are not primarily in the individual interest of the requester” and the records are “likely to contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of the operations or activities of the government.”

Mastroeni submitted the waiver request. Patterson returned an eight-page document that asks for detailed financial information, including documentation of bank accounts, real estate, residences in the last five years, vehicles, unearned income -- even burial plots.

Again, Mastroeni felt flabbergasted and shocked she’d have to disclose such a large heap of personal information.

Patterson defended the form. She modeled it after the Elmore County indigent-care asset evaluation form.

“At the time, we didn’t have the form,” Patterson explained. Mastroeni’s is the first fee-waiver situation so large that city officials needed to accurately assess a requester’s ability to pay.

City Councilor Geoff Schroeder defended Patterson’s handling of the request and the fee waiver application. He said, Patterson “is not trying to get out of anything.”

Schroeder is a veteran of Mountain Home politics, and is the council president. He has worked with Patterson and Mastroeni to find a reasonable path forward.

He suggested Mastroeni cut down her records request further to a dollar amount she can afford, and proceed from that point. Though he proclaimed his dedication to open government and easily available records, Schroeder said he agrees with the cost associated with the email request.

“I hate being in a position to justify it,” he said. “I prefer to give people what they ask for, no matter what they are after.”

Economics and budgets block that, though. Someone has to pay the cost, whether it’s the requester or taxpayers. But that puts a price on open government, and creates a tension between watchdogs and government.

To ease that tension, state officials could examine repealing the code section that exempts economic development records from being disclosed. Though he hasn’t fully investigated the issue, Schroeder is bothered by the section that allows public officials to hide such records.

“That exemption for economic development does give me pause,” he said.” I did not know that exemption existed. That was a surprise for me, too.”

Patterson has concerns about the impact a repeal of that section might have on economic development. “I don’t know what that would do to businesses,” she said. “If we were able to give out that information all the time, would they go to other states?”

That question matters little to Mastroeni, who solely seeks government accountability. She hasn’t settled on a path forward in this flap. “I don’t know what I am going to do,” she said.

Mastroeni questions how government places such significant roadblocks between her and the email records.

“Is this really the spirit of government transparency?” she asked. “My request for records from the economic development office was so that myself and others could gain a better understanding of economic development in Mountain Home.”

For his part, Schroeder sees “palpable tension” on the records issue, but isn’t quite sure how anyone might fix the situation.

“Is there a better way?” he questioned. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you.”

No stranger to an uphill battle, Mastroeni wonders if she might need to innovate to raise the money. She quipped, “Maybe I will go sell lemonade in front of City Hall to pay for this.”

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