Politics

Officials: Public records request straining understaffed Norwich town office

The resident behind a pile of public records requests said the situation could have been avoided if town staff or Selectboard members had answered questions from residents about town operations. Photo by HopsonRoad via Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

This story by Darren Marcy was first published in the Valley News on Aug. 15.

NORWICH — A demand for access to public records is making it hard for town employees to do their jobs, according to town officials, but the resident behind the request says the whole thing could have been avoided if Selectboard members had been willing to talk to residents about their concerns.

Officials warn that the requests for information are so voluminous and the town offices are so understaffed that the situation threatens to bring municipal operations to a standstill.

“I don’t know how much of an appreciation our community has for the structural challenges our town and other towns are facing in terms of the labor shortage and how compromised we are to deliver services,” Selectboard Chairman Roger Arnold said. “It’s not business as usual. These are highly strained circumstances.”

But Stuart Richards, the resident behind the requests under Vermont’s open records law, said the situation could have been avoided if town staff or Selectboard members had answered questions from residents about town operations, which have become a regular feature of the public comment portion at Selectboard meeting.

“It’s most unfortunate that they have essentially shut the public out when they could have had a conversation that would perhaps have been productive,” Richards said.

Richards said there has not been enough information released about the town’s efforts to address ongoing personnel issues across municipal departments, including staffing levels, recruitment and retention. Among the key unfilled positions is police chief. Residents also have asked about the pace of work by a consulting firm that is supposed to be assisting the town with its human resource issues.

Richards, who has a long history of involvement in Norwich civic affairs, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Selectboard and town, repeatedly submitting commentary to the board for inclusion in the meeting packet as well as attending the remote-only meetings to voice his displeasure.

Richards’ public record request includes 15 separate demands. Some are for routine items, such as copies of contracts, lists of employees and salary information. But other requests, such as a request for all correspondence among Selectboard members covering multiple topics, will encompass hundreds of emails, each of which would have to be reviewed by town counsel prior to its release.

Town Manager Rod Francis said fulfilling Richards’ request will produce thousands of individual records.

“The town is committed to transparency,” Town Manager Rod Francis said. “We will provide him all the public records he is entitled to receive, but that might not be the full range of information he is seeking. Typically, a public record request is narrow and focused.”

Arnold said the Selectboard is committed to addressing the town’s human resource challenges.

“Many members of the public have expressed frustration,” Arnold said, adding that the board is working under the direction of legal counsel. “The board is also frustrated by the length of time that it takes. But, in order to have the utmost respect and concern for all employees and all people involved, to behave legally and ethically and morally, it necessitates a long process.”

Arnold also pointed out the town continues to work on ongoing priorities, including an election and road and bridge work, despite being short-staffed.

“Our employees continue to deliver high quality services to the town of Norwich,” Arnold said. “We’re facing deep inflationary pressures, labor shortages across most departments, and we have entered a new phase of the pandemic. We’re facing real structural challenges.”

Arnold and Francis submitted answers to some of Richards’ inquiries several weeks ago, but Richards said the effort was not satisfactory.

“They’re going to have to comply and if they don’t comply, they’ll be forced to comply,” Richards said.

Francis said he and his staff were busy Friday trying to fulfill the requests. It’s putting such a burden on town staff, Francis said, that some employees have had to set aside their routine work.

“Town counsel is caught up in this, the finance director ... other staff and the Selectboard,” Francis said. “It means they can’t be doing their regular work.”

Some of Richards’ requests don’t appear to conform to public records requirements, Francis said.

In the publication, “A Guide to Vermont’s Public Records Laws,” outgoing Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos warns against confusing public records requests with information requests.

“The public does not have the right to require a public official or employee to do research or create a document that does not exist,” Condos wrote.

Some of the information Richards has requested would require the town to conduct analysis or do research, Francis said, such as a request to: “Provide any documents comparing Norwich rates of pay with other towns for positions that are vacant.”

Francis said the breadth of the demand raises the question of whether it’s a legitimate records request.

“Is this an abuse of process? I think that is the question,” Francis said. “We don’t dispute the need for open government.”

He said the records that meet the definition and can be obtained would be transmitted to Richards by Monday afternoon.

Late Monday afternoon, Richards said he had received one document by email.

“More records will be provided to you as they become available,” Miranda Bergmeier, town manager assistant, said in the email.

The cost to provide the records also is an issue. State law allows towns to charge a fee based on the cost of staff time to produce the record.

“We are tallying the time we have already dedicated to it,” Francis said. “There are things he’s asking that may be exempt, and other things that are so vast, that we would need to retain the services of an IT specialist to estimate the cost involved. Because we expect that cost to be so high, we’re not willing to conduct that work until Mr. Richards agrees to the cost.”

Richards said he wasn’t prepared to comment on what dollar figure he would be willing to entertain, only that the town would have to justify those costs.

“As long as they can justify the time, the charges will be what they are,” Richards said.

The Norwich Selectboard met in a special session Monday evening for an executive session to consult with its attorney. More public comment was expected.

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