In May, Sally Reynolds emailed her opinion on fixing the Downtown City Park fountain to Paso Robles City Manager Jim App. She said she believed her thoughts on a plan to repair the fountain would remain among her, App and the City Council.
She was caught off guard when a volunteer on the project sent an email disagreeing with her, copying several other recipients in the process.
Little did Reynolds know, the city is required by state public record laws to disclose to the public most letters and emails it receives.
The issue sparked a brief debate last week on how the public’s right to government information jives with what some believe should remain concealed.
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City leaders say the issue is a reminder that anything you send to the city could become part of the public record.
Reynolds’ experience, paired with an email she received from a resident with a similar situation, prompted her to act.
She asked the council last week to adopt a policy under which public comments, letters and emails submitted to the city would only become public if the author provides permission or personal information is redacted.
“I received an email from a volunteer scolding me for my opinion,” Reynolds said. “I sent my opinion to my city government. While city government did not respond to me, they opened the door for everybody and anybody to respond, and they did,” she said.
The city doesn’t redact names from public emails and letters, city leaders said, because government is ultimately required to disclose the names upon request through the state’s Public Records Act.
“This is not good for residents,” said Reynolds, a former co-chair of the Change Paso Robles Now citizen group. “You tell (residents) to get involved, and this is what happens.”
The council on July 3 shelved Reynolds’ proposal without changing its policies.
Besides being made public, messages such as Reynolds’ can be circulated among city staff so they can research concerns people have and present options to the council, App said.
Reynolds said that’s not OK. For example, she cited a fellow resident who emailed the City Council about the allegations against former police Chief Lisa Solomon before the chief resigned in April. Afterward, Solomon apparently addressed him in person at the post office about his letter.
Reynolds said she understands that comments should be made public but she does not see why names must be disclosed. Removing names would encourage more people to become involved in local government, she said.
“This proposal would be one small step in the city of Paso Robles acknowledging residents do matter,” she added.
“I can understand her position,” Mayor Duane Picanco later said. “I think she felt intimidated by the negative response she received, but if you say something, you better be able to stand behind it. I feel, really and truly, that (anonymity) gives it less credibility.”
Disclosing the person’s name matters, Councilman Fred Strong said: If someone disagrees with an applicant proposing a project, for example, the applicant has the right to know who disagrees, he said.
At last week’s City Council meeting, resident Kathy Barnett said striving for transparency but also hiding your own name is “a little two-faced.”
“I know that, like any adult, you don’t put anything in writing that you don’t want the world to read,” she said.
Resident Chip Tamagni supported Reynolds by saying the city shouldn’t have “shipped out” her personal information to the public, because Reynolds’ email included her home and cell phone numbers.
Reynolds’ proposed changes, city leaders say, would add a layer of bureaucracy, spurring more delays, taking up more time and increasing costs.
Keeping the names on the record also means “the whole process is transparent,” App said.
Five of the seven cities in San Luis Obispo County share similar public letter practices, Paso Robles officials said. The city of Morro Bay didn’t respond to Paso Robles’ inquiry.
Reynolds is no longer affiliated with Change Paso Robles Now because she said its goals and focus no longer align with her own.