SLO managers accused of intercepting council mail
February 9, 2012
By SYDNEY RAY
A San Luis Obispo property owner spoke out on Tuesday about an incident involving mail sent to the City Council members being intercepted, the originals shredded and the correspondence withheld from the city’s elected officials for several days.
At the City Council meeting, Steve Barasch, a SLO resident of 23 years, spoke of his recent attempt to hand deliver five letters marked “personal” to the boxes of City Council members.
Barasch has battled with staff for more than 11 months in an attempt to get code enforcement to deal with a hazardous situation that occurred as the result of a city order to remove a tree on Leff Street next to a rental property he owns. After the tree and its root ball were removed, debris and earth fell into a drainage way where a large open pit now exists.
As a result of the city’s inaction, Farmers Insurance sent a letter to Barasch warning of plans to cancel Barasch’s homeowners insurance if the hazard is not corrected, which in turn could threaten his loan.
“Adjacent to your property, neighboring property and sidewalk is a very dangerous open pit,” the Jan. 24 letter from Farmers Insurance says. “It is alarmingly close to the sidewalk and driveway. Vehicles and pedestrians coming and going on the property are at risk.”
After making multiple calls to city staff asking to have the issue corrected, Barasch attempted to contact council members. Barasch said he handed the letters marked “personal” to the administrative coordinator and asked if they could be placed promptly in the council member’s boxes.
But it seems the letters never quite made it all the way into the Council members’ boxes.
Instead, city staffers read the letters, shredded the originals and the envelopes, and waited until after 5 p.m. two days later before forwarding a copy of the correspondence to the council.
City Attorney J. Christine Dietrick defended the city’s action saying that it is in the public’s interest for city staff to make copies of correspondence regarding city issues because once they are dropped off at city hall they are part of the city record.
“It’s pretty squarely within the definition of a public record…. Therefore the city has an obligation particularly where a correspondence is delivered on an agenda matter to make that agenda distributed to the council and concurrently available to the public,” Dietrick said.
But Barasch and others in the audience remained concerned with the current policy.
“In summary, I think the city needs to review its policies on how to get mail from the constituents to the City Council without any interference whatsoever,” Barasch said. “To that I hope you all can have a discussion of this because I think many of you might be uncomfortable not being able to open your own mail when your constituents want to get information to you.”
SLO resident Leslie Halls worked in the offices of Assemblywoman Carol Hallett and Assemblyman Eric Seastrand for a total of 11 years and said one of her main duties was to open the mail in her bosses’ offices.
“We got about three hundred pieces (of mail) a week,” Halls said. “All the stuff would go to the boss. He would get the original letter back with the letter I was sending, and he signed everything. We never destroyed the mail.”
City manager Katie Lichtig defended the council’s actions.
“The reality is that it saves storage space, it saves trees, it saves expenses, and so this is a longstanding practice that the city has had long before I got here,” Lichtig said. “We do take very seriously our obligation to keep the council informed and transmit in a timely fashion any correspondence that is coming to the office to your attention.”
City Council member Kathy Smith suggested that if constituents want private mail to be received by someone on the council, they should send it to that person’s home address.
Nevertheless, during the past few days city staff has contacted each council member and asked how they would like their mail handled.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Council members Smith, Dan Carpenter and Andrew Carter said they prefer to open their own mail.
Councilman John Ashbaugh said he likes staff to open his mail and determine what mail he receives. Mayor Jan Marx remained silent on the issue. At the end of the discussion, the council voted 4-1 to put the issue on a future agenda for more consideration.
Last week, city staff put up a barrier on the street side of the pit to help safeguard the public until construction to correct the hazard is performed.
Meanwhile, city staff discovered the ditch is a blue water drainage way which means it drains into the ocean. As a result, before permits for construction can be issued, the Department of Fish and Game, the Water Quality Board and Flood Management need to sign off on any proposed work.