SLO managers accused of intercepting council mail

February 9, 2012

SLO City Manager Katie Lichtig

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.


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Citizen

If you destroy the originals, then anything ending up in court can be disputed as “only a copy”.


TacomaRose

The staffers open and read mail addressed to individual councilmembers primarily to “cut em off at the pass”


“Lucky” Lichtig does not want to be surprised and this gives her and her cohort “Tricky” Dietrick an opportunity to put her own spin on things before the Council can ask the hard questions …. (not that they nesessarily would ask hard questions)


As the world turns

These women are embarrassments to other women in positions of power.


sloslo

I would probably email a copy of anything I sent by regular mail to the council. Most council members claim to personally read and respond to their email regularly, and (although it’s not 100% reliable) you can set up a read receipt for email you send.


Also City Council member Kathy Smith’s suggestion that if constituents send correspondence to that person’s home address is ridiculous. I assume their home addresses are not published, because when the Tribune posted pictures of their homes with their trash cans left out, everyone freaked out and said it violated their privacy even though their actual addresses were never listed.


Kevin Rice

Council member residence addresses are public record and easy to obtain.


I would be surprised if 10% of email clients honor read receipts.


Kevin Rice

BTW– The Tribune published street names boldly on each photograph. Just as good as an address.


As the world turns

Read Cal Gov. Code Section 5254 before stating that their addresses are public record.


Kevin Rice

You mean 6254. Which subdivision? 6254 is extremely long.


As the world turns

Sorry. Start with 6254. 21


Kevin Rice

I fail to see how 6254.21 of the Public Records Act repudiates in any way the fact that council member home addresses are a public record. The information is available from the city clerk. Start by asking for FPPC 700 filings. There is an overwhelming public interest in knowing that an elected official lives within their district.


As the world turns

Good luck SLORider.


As the world turns

BTW: Read the entire 6254; not just section 21.


Kevin Rice

I’ve both studied and used the CPRA many times, as recently as three days ago. Nothing in the CPRA exempts council addresses and I’ve obtained such info many times for council members, supervisors and grand jurors. You can easily type ‘good luck’ but I can show you the documents already obtained that contain addresses. FPPC statutes require disclosure.


As the world turns

Good luck SLORider. I’m sure you are a scholar.


Kevin Rice

Take a walk into the city or county clerk’s office some time. They have all the FPPC 700 disclosure forms available and you can browse them or get copies.


sloslo

You would be surprised. Most people have their email clients configured to automatically display any remote image that is inlined in the message because many html messages rely on such remote images to display properly. This provides a very easy way not only to see if they read the message, but also to find out the IP Address, type of computer, and type of mail reader that was used to read the message. Useful info!


Kevin Rice

Yeah, well, that’s not a read receipt and my client does not do that.


As the world turns

SLORider, how do you know your client does not do that?


Kevin Rice

Blocking images is now the default for Thunderbird, Gmail, and Outlook, OE and AOL and Yahoo! and Hotmail.


Most clients, including mine, display a message to unblock images every time such an email is received. Image blocking can be managed per sender, and I do manage blocking per sender with the default being ‘blocked’.


I am very aware of beacons and encoded links and don’t let them through.


Kevin Rice

Love the down votes! Ya gotta wonder if those people think they know how my email works more than I do, or maybe they’re upset that I block images. Who knows?


bobfromsanluis

Of everything listed in the article, the part that stood out the most for me was this paragraph: “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.” Now I really don’t have a problem with city staff opening the mail for the council members to see if it is going to the correct person, however, it was marked “personal”, so perhaps they should have consulted with the individual council members to see if they wanted staff to open the mail or not. The real problem I have with this paragraph is the line: ” … shredded the originals and the envelopes, … “; how does the council person know that the copy that was made was an exact copy? Is it possible that the letters where somehow edited or altered? By also shredding the envelope they are removing a possible means for the council member to contact that citizen as well. And I have a problem with staff waiting until after 5 p.m. two days later to forward the copy; perhaps the matter needs to be investigated and time could be a critical issue?

As to Ms. Lichtig claiming that this practice “saves expenses”, that statement also makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Having staff spend their time opening the mail incurs payroll costs; making a copy requires using electricity, toner and paper as well as city staff time, and shredding the originals also requires electricity and staff time. Simply letting the council members open their own mail means that city staff is not spending their time on this issue and the council members decide what is important and how to respond. The whole issue is a waste of taxpayer monies, and quite possibly interferes with citizens addressing their representatives.


Ugluk

“Councilman John Ashbaugh said he likes staff to open his mail and determine what mail he receives.”


Hey Ashbaugh, people aren’t taking time out of their busy schedules to write to your staff. You’re a SLO city councilman, not the president of the United States, so get over your delusions of grandeur. If opening your own mail is too arduous a task, maybe SLO needs to replace you.


The fact that it’s taken 11 MONTHS for Steve Barasch to get someone to deal with a public safety hazard (not to mention the jeopardy to his homeowner’s insurance and loan) shows just how out of touch the city officials really are. You can bet that if this hole was near the homes of any city council members, it would be fixed immediately.


Jack L

If each letter was addressed properly to a specific person, and had the proper amonut of postage, this would be a federal crime………learned all about it listening to my father who worked in the post office.


racket

Not sure where the federal crime is in delegating someone else to open your mail. There might be some in-house nefariousness if said mail is selectively censored by the designee.


Practically speaking, the only time I see it being an issue is if your “personal” correspondence to the council is about Lichtig and/or city staff, and therefore the integrity of the delivery becomes jeapordized.


I guess I also question the possibility of Barash (or anyone else) having “personal” business with the elected leaders of a public agency.


Jack L

The crime is when you did not give permission to open your mail.


rogerfreberg

Hmmmm…


First, never bring an important piece of correspondence without getting it time stamped and initialed.


Secondly, the problem with staff reviewing correspondence is not so much a problem of controlling the junk mail that comes in, but censoring the flow of citizen comments and reaction. Our elected officials need to at least see it … if they decide to trash it… well, that’s their decision.


Otherwise, this looks like a case of administrators trying to protect the direction they wish action to go.


It would seem prudent if the council would review this policy.


Kevin Rice

Nice to see coverage of non-mainstream issues. That other site, lets just call them “Bog Water” only covers cliche matters and trumpets the power players’ press releases. Great article.


TacomaRose

Bog Water !!!! I love it SLORider … That is a good one!


socenco

destroying mail saves trees and expenses???…is this person for real?


Ugluk

You’re right, socenco. I thought the same thing when I read the Katie Lichtig quote: “The reality is that it saves storage space, it saves trees, it saves expenses….”

The only possible explanation is that bureaucracy creates some sort of ray or field that distorts the bureaucrat’s perceptions of reality. I have noticed this effect before ;-)


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