Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Not The County Too

The e-mail Mr. Gessaman mentions in this memo is found at the end of this post. Brian Clifton is the Planning Director for Cascade County.

Dear Commissioners,

At yesterday's Commission meeting, the public heard Commissioner Olson make lofty pronouncements about transparency in County government. Perhaps you could please explain how those pronouncements square with the email below. Because of the posting of this email today, I did not have access to this information at yesterday's Commission meeting. Please note the accommodations I offered in my request letter and ask Mr. Hopkins for the email exchanges with me regarding access to the County's emails on SME/HGS; I believe you will see that I have outlined other methods of viewing County records without destroying the "50,000 trees" mentioned at yesterday's Commission meeting. I do appreciate the rank and file county employee efforts to provide the records received to date.

I am anxiously awaiting your response.
Ron Gessaman


The party cc'd in this e-mail appears to be a lawyer with a law firm in Missoula.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

The city's 'infection' is spreading?

Anonymous said...

Gessaman needs a life and a new hobby - what a pain in the neck! The infection is spreading from MEIC, CCE, and that bunch of environuts who want to stop all growth in Cascade County.

Anonymous said...

7:42

Exactly the kind of thing a crybaby with something to hide would say.

Me Thinks Thou Doth Protest Too Much

Anonymous said...

Anon, Have you ever heard of the "Bill of Rights"? Have you ever testified and asked questions of your government? Do you really care what these representative do with your dollars?

Apathy is easy, to stand up for your rights takes GUTS!

Thank you Mr. Gessaman.........

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gessmaman's request for information has been complied with without arguement by the county.

I suggest that anyone who does not beleive this should simply go to the County Planning department and view the documents for themselves. Then make their own judgement as to the situation.

The truth is not as Mr. Gessaman has described it and his attack on the county is simply not justified.

Whatever happened to aiming before pulling the trigger?

Anonymous said...

We NEED, yes NEED, a Citizen Democracy that is willing to write, speak out and Inquire, and insist government exercise oversight, accountability and transparency. I would agree the county has done a better job of providing documents, but it's the key documents that go 'missing' or are late sometimes.

Instead of damning citizens who ASK questions, why don't more citizens demand answers, so it doesn't always fall on the brave few to take abuse.

And I urge more citizens to be 'PAINS in the neck' and hold our government to standards. Remember what lack of ovesight and transparency brought us with the Wall Street meltdown? And how about no accountability and CEOs fleeing with billions?

Responsible, innovative and susstainable growth IS and WILL happen, and we'll even help develop 'green' jobs, which is coming on with 'baby' steps now, but will pick-up.

"When one citizen shows courage, that is a majority." Andrew Jackson (yes, the one who was a president and combat hero of the Battle of New Orleans)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gessaman is very sanctimonius in his "quest" for information. If he doesn't find anything in his fishing expeditions, he claims people are withholding information.
He should find a new hobby.

Anonymous said...

Is it any wonder ECP is such a huge blundering failure?

After all look at a city insider and ECP supporter anon 7:35 AM.

sanctimonious "making a hypocritical show of religious devotion, piety, righteousness"

If anon had half a brain she would look up the definition of a word and use spell check. There is absolutely nothing Hypocritical about Mr Gessaman.

Anon ignores violating the code of ethics, disseminating false information, attempting to "control" citizens who demand accountability and present documentation to back up their claims.

Mr Gessaman is on a "quest" for the truth and right about now there is hardly anything more important.

The sanctimonious hypocrites like 7:35, with blundering unfounded accusations, prove citizens like Mr Gessaman are one of the most valuable resource this city has, citizens who are honest and care.

Thank you Mr. Gessaman.

Joe Briggs said...

Readers of Cataract City,

After I noticed this post and the accompanying string of comments, I thought it appropriate to provide additional information.

The email which was posted on this site is one piece of puzzle and as usual, more pieces are required to bring clarity to the picture.

Below is a copy of an email I sent to concerned citizens this morning as well as the others related to this issue. It is my hope when you see the entire picture you will have a better understanding of what transpired.

Please keep in mind the original email posted on this site which provoked the comments was a follow-up to a verbal conversation. To those who were a party to both the verbal conversation and the email, it makes sense with no sinister undertones. It is only when viewed without the context of the discussion that it might be construed in a different light.

I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but the complete truth does not often lend itself to sound bite size.

Joe Briggs
Cascade County Commissioner
______________________________________________________
Sent 10/31/08 08:04 AM
Mr. Gessaman and Ms. Morris,

Last night our attorney Brian Hopkins sent Mr. Gessaman emails attempting to more fully explain the position the county has taken regarding the request for email records ( I am attaching those emails so that Ms. Morris will have them as well) . I hope that you understand, we have absolutely no intention of withholding documents from the public. There are simply logistical obstacles that we need to overcome and these take time.

Mr. Gessaman’s comments at the commission meeting seemed to indicate that he believed daily access to all emails regarding the coal plant from all departments should be readily available. While this would certainly be ideal and is possible from a computer technology standpoint, it would not be practical because of the legal requirement we have to protect individual’s privacy rights and communications related to litigation strategy. Please note that I used the phrase “individual’s privacy rights”. SME has never filed any affidavits with us regarding trade secrets and as such they have no privacy rights in this issue. All of the documents and emails from them or to them are public record and subject to public inspection. They have been and will continue to be provided on request.

The concern with automatically creating a file of all email based on a computer filter is that emails may contain more than one subject and the release of those emails might violate an employee privacy rights. Honestly, we do not know how often this is the case, but since it is a possibility, we cannot release the emails until they are individually checked for content.

If an email is found which does contain both SME information and items which fall under the personal privacy statute or litigation strategy, the SME portion will be released and the privileged areas redacted. The bottom line is that doing this on a daily basis as requested is a resource drain that we cannot afford so we are doing the best we can and responding as quickly as possible. I would also add that we believe we are responding at a level higher than is statutorily mandated and will gladly continue to do so.

I am genuinely sorry that you are not happy with our efforts to date; our belief in open government is just as strong as your own. Quite frankly though, honoring the specifics of your request, as we understand them, would require the addition of a public information officer.

While such a position would certainly be nice and would in truth make my job easier, it is a luxury item that I do not believe we can afford. This year we were unable to meet many of the department’s budget requests and have had to reduce staff and cut back services in the Health Department as well as having to stop planned program enhancements in other departments. Given the financial realities of our budget, creation of a public information officer position is a luxury we cannot afford.

Joe Briggs
Cascade County Commissioner

Previously sent emails on this issue are below……………………………………………………..
Mr. Gessaman,
Commissioners Olson and Briggs have asked me to respond to your e-mail of October 29, 11:18 am, regarding your request for all County e-mails which are related to the Highwood Plant. Standing alone, my e-mail of October 27, 2008, 8:25 am, does not fully reflect the County’s position on your request, so I am forwarding the below and another e-mail I sent to Commissioner Olson. If these responses are unsatisfactory, please respond to the Commissioners.
Brian Hopkins
Deputy County Attorney, Civil Division
Cascade County Attorney's Office
voice: (406) 454-6904
fax: (406) 454-6949
bhopkins@co.cascade.mt.us

From: Hopkins, Brian
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2008 4:59 PM
To: Briggs, Joe
Cc: Clifton, Brian; Olson, Lance; Beltrone, Peggy; Shannon, Carey; afmccormick@garlington.com
Subject: RE:
Commissioner Briggs
I provided a more detailed response to Mr. Gessaman’s letter at 12:52 pm yesterday, which I sent to Commissioners, Brian Clifton and Alan McCormick. I will forward it again separately.
Responding to Ms. Morris’ letter, I don’t know where she got the idea that the County is now “contemplating purging their records.” As we discussed at the public meeting on Tuesday, during the two week period between the time Mr. Gessaman requested copies of all County e-mails relating to Highwood Station sent or received between January 1, 2007 and the present, we provided over 700 pages of e-mail documents. I have today finalized a CD containing approximately 187 e-mails from or to Commissioner Beltrone during the time in question and will provide that to the Planning Department to turn over to Mr. Gessaman. As you know, and per your direction, I have sent an e-mail to every County employee requesting that they provide me a copy of any e-mail that would be responsive to Mr. Gessaman’s request. I have and will screen any e-mails for any matters that may be not be releasable to the public because of privacy concerns, because they reflect litigation strategy, as partly set out at Montana Code Annotated 2-3-203(4), or for any other legal reason that mandates withholding.
What I DID state in the earlier e-mail is that I see no reason for the County to undertake the burden of creating a separate system of records containing every e-mail generated by the County on every single issue that the County deals with and updating it on a daily basis. That applies to Highwood–related issues or any other topic of interest to the public. The County obviously supports the Constitutional right of the public to have access to public records, and that should be really obvious from the size of the public record on Highwood. I believe that in March when the public record on Highwood was put end-to-end it was many feet long. That record has all been copied and provided to the Court as part of the litigation process. Those documents too are public records since they have been filed in Court.
So I hope this e-mail and the one I sent yesterday clarifies the County’s position. The County responds to all requests for public documents, but cannot stop taking care of all other County business while it responds to a very broad request, such as the one made by Mr. Gessaman. And again, I do not believe there is any legal authority requiring the County to create a separate system of records consisting of every e-mail on every issue that the County gets involved in and updating it on a daily basis. That is simply unacceptable precedent.
I have no idea how my earlier e-mails were interpreted as a recommendation that the County purge any records and I think all County employees would take offense at that suggestion.

Brian Hopkins
Deputy County Attorney, Civil Division
Cascade County Attorney's Office
voice: (406) 454-6904
fax: (406) 454-6949
bhopkins@co.cascade.mt.us

From: Briggs, Joe
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2008 4:06 PM
To: Hopkins, Brian
Cc: Clifton, Brian; Olson, Lance; Beltrone, Peggy
Subject: FW:
Brian,
Lance wants to respond to this and Mr. Gessaman’s email as soon as possible. Given that you have firsthand knowledge of the process we used to respond to the request for emails, I think it would be more productive for you to craft a response rather than for us to craft the response based on what we believe to have occurred.
I know that you are swamped on other issues and I apologize for making this request, but it is very important that we answer these questions as completely, succinctly and rapidly as is possible.

Thanks,

Joe
From: Pamela June Morris [mailto:pml@imt.net]
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2008 3:47 PM
To: 'Gessaman'; Olson, Lance
Cc: Beltrone, Peggy; Briggs, Joe; 'Karl'
Subject:

Dear Commissioners,
I, too, would appreciate receiving your response as soon as possible.
When public officials have so little trust in the population they serve that they even contemplate purging their records is unconscionable.
It is, indeed, a shame when we citizens are compelled to sue our own government in order to know what is going on.

Pamela Morris
2201 8th Ave. N., Great Falls

-----Original Message-----
From: Gessaman [mailto:rkkgessaman@gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 11:18 AM
To: Lance Olson
Cc: Peggy Beltrone; Joe Briggs; Karl
Subject: Transparency

Dear Commissioners,
At yesterday's Commission meeting, the public heard Commissioner Olson
make lofty pronouncements about transparency in County government.
Perhaps you could please explain how those pronouncements square with
the email below. Because of the posting of this email today, I did not
have access to this information at yesterday's Commission meeting.
Please note the accommodations I offered in my request letter and ask
Mr. Hopkins for the email exchanges with me regarding access to the
County's emails on SME/HGS; I believe you will see that I have outlined
other methods of viewing County records without destroying the "50,000
trees" mentioned at yesterday's Commission meeting. I do appreciate the
rank and file county employee efforts to provide the records received
to date.
I am anxiously awaiting your response.
Ron Gessaman
___________________________________________________
Fellow County employees,

A member of the public has requested a copy of all County e-mails relating to the proposed construction of the Highwood Generating Station coal-fired plant. The County’s primary involvement in this matter was the March, 2008, decision by the County Commissioners to rezone approximately 668 acres of land from agricultural to industrial use to allow for construction of the coal plant. More recently, Southern Montana Electric has been granted a permit to begin construction of the coal fired plant. The Commissioners’ decision is currently being litigated in the Eighth Judicial District Court and the issuance of a permit is also being challenged.
In order to accommodate the request for e-mails, the County Commissioners are requiring all County employees to forward to me any e-mails you have sent or received concerning the Highwood Generating Station between the period of January 1, 2007 and the present. If you do have e-mails, please forward them to me by Friday, November 7, 2008. Please do not forward e-mails directly to members of the public, as the Commissioners have asked me to be the single point of contact on the request. There is no need to send negative replies. If you have any questions, please contact me via e-mail or at the below phone number.
Thank you for your attention to this matter,
Brian Hopkins
Deputy County Attorney, Civil Division
Cascade County Attorney's Office
voice: (406) 454-6904
fax: (406) 454-6949
bhopkins@co.cascade.mt.us
________________________________________________________
Mr. Gessaman,

Commissioners Olson and Briggs have asked me to respond to your e-mail of October 29, 11:18 am, regarding your request for all County e-mails which are related to the Highwood Plant. Standing alone, my e-mail of October 27, 2008, 8:25 am, does not fully reflect the County’s position on your request, so I am forwarding the below and another e-mail I sent to Commissioner Olson. If these responses are unsatisfactory, please respond to the Commissioners.
Brian Hopkins
Deputy County Attorney, Civil Division
Cascade County Attorney's Office
voice: (406) 454-6904
fax: (406) 454-6949
bhopkins@co.cascade.mt.us

From: Hopkins, Brian
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2008 4:59 PM
To: Briggs, Joe
Cc: Clifton, Brian; Olson, Lance; Beltrone, Peggy; Shannon, Carey; afmccormick@garlington.com
Subject: RE:

Commissioner Briggs
I provided a more detailed response to Mr. Gessaman’s letter at 12:52 pm yesterday, which I sent to Commissioners, Brian Clifton and Alan McCormick. I will forward it again separately.
Responding to Ms. Morris’ letter, I don’t know where she got the idea that the County is now “contemplating purging their records.” As we discussed at the public meeting on Tuesday, during the two week period between the time Mr. Gessaman requested copies of all County e-mails relating to Highwood Station sent or received between January 1, 2007 and the present, we provided over 700 pages of e-mail documents. I have today finalized a CD containing approximately 187 e-mails from or to Commissioner Beltrone during the time in question and will provide that to the Planning Department to turn over to Mr. Gessaman. As you know, and per your direction, I have sent an e-mail to every County employee requesting that they provide me a copy of any e-mail that would be responsive to Mr. Gessaman’s request. I have and will screen any e-mails for any matters that may be not be releasable to the public because of privacy concerns, because they reflect litigation strategy, as partly set out at Montana Code Annotated 2-3-203(4), or for any other legal reason that mandates withholding.
What I DID state in the earlier e-mail is that I see no reason for the County to undertake the burden of creating a separate system of records containing every e-mail generated by the County on every single issue that the County deals with and updating it on a daily basis. That applies to Highwood–related issues or any other topic of interest to the public. The County obviously supports the Constitutional right of the public to have access to public records, and that should be really obvious from the size of the public record on Highwood. I believe that in March when the public record on Highwood was put end-to-end it was many feet long. That record has all been copied and provided to the Court as part of the litigation process. Those documents too are public records since they have been filed in Court.
So I hope this e-mail and the one I sent yesterday clarifies the County’s position. The County responds to all requests for public documents, but cannot stop taking care of all other County business while it responds to a very broad request, such as the one made by Mr. Gessaman. And again, I do not believe there is any legal authority requiring the County to create a separate system of records consisting of every e-mail on every issue that the County gets involved in and updating it on a daily basis. That is simply unacceptable precedent.
I have no idea how my earlier e-mails were interpreted as a recommendation that the County purge any records and I think all County employees would take offense at that suggestion.
Brian Hopkins
Deputy County Attorney, Civil Division
Cascade County Attorney's Office
voice: (406) 454-6904
fax: (406) 454-6949
bhopkins@co.cascade.mt.us

From: Briggs, Joe
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2008 4:06 PM
To: Hopkins, Brian
Cc: Clifton, Brian; Olson, Lance; Beltrone, Peggy
Subject: FW:

Brian,
Lance wants to respond to this and Mr. Gessaman’s email as soon as possible. Given that you have firsthand knowledge of the process we used to respond to the request for emails, I think it would be more productive for you to craft a response rather than for us to craft the response based on what we believe to have occurred.
I know that you are swamped on other issues and I apologize for making this request, but it is very important that we answer these questions as completely, succinctly and rapidly as is possible.

Thanks,

Joe

From: Pamela June Morris [mailto:pml@imt.net]
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2008 3:47 PM
To: 'Gessaman'; Olson, Lance
Cc: Beltrone, Peggy; Briggs, Joe; 'Karl'
Subject:

Dear Commissioners,
I, too, would appreciate receiving your response as soon as possible.
When public officials have so little trust in the population they serve that they even contemplate purging their records is unconscionable.
It is, indeed, a shame when we citizens are compelled to sue our own government in order to know what is going on.

Pamela Morris
2201 8th Ave. N., Great Falls

-----Original Message-----
From: Gessaman [mailto:rkkgessaman@gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 11:18 AM
To: Lance Olson
Cc: Peggy Beltrone; Joe Briggs; Karl
Subject: Transparency

Dear Commissioners,
At yesterday's Commission meeting, the public heard Commissioner Olson
make lofty pronouncements about transparency in County government.
Perhaps you could please explain how those pronouncements square with
the email below. Because of the posting of this email today, I did not
have access to this information at yesterday's Commission meeting.
Please note the accommodations I offered in my request letter and ask
Mr. Hopkins for the email exchanges with me regarding access to the
County's emails on SME/HGS; I believe you will see that I have outlined
other methods of viewing County records without destroying the "50,000
trees" mentioned at yesterday's Commission meeting. I do appreciate the
rank and file county employee efforts to provide the records received
to date.

I am anxiously awaiting your response.

Ron Gessaman
Please note: Montana has a very broad public records law. Most written communications to or from County Employees and Officials regarding County business are public records available to the public and media upon request. Your e-mail communication may be subject to public disclosure.
________________________________________________
Commissioners,
I have not seen the e-mail that Gessaman is referring to, but I assume it is the below one. We have and are continuing to try to accommodate a member of the public’s request for documents. I do not believe that means the County is required to create a separate system of records consisting of all e-mails generated by or to County employees regarding Highwood and update it on a daily basis, any more than the County should do that for all e-mails related to the litter ordinance, election issues, or any of the other of the myriad issues that the County deals with on a daily basis.

I realize Commissioner Olson told Gessaman yesterday that we would provide him with a copy of Highwood-related e-mails from the time period of January 1, 2007 to the present, and we are in the process of doing that. But to give him daily updates is an entirely unacceptable precedent. The fact that Clifton provides the public with its own copy of the Planning Office’s records is way beyond the call of duty and a lot different than scouring County-wide records on a daily basis to assemble Highwood-related documents, compile them into a County record, and then make them available to any given member of the public on a daily basis.
I would point out also that your work on Highwood has been done for over six months. At this point, any appeal of the location conformance permit will go to the Board of Adjustments and then potentially to Court. Your vote to rezone is under review in Court. Based on this, I believe the Planning Office is the only office that should have any reason to be involved in Highwood issues going forward because of the challenge relating to the location conformance permit.
Although I strenuously oppose creating a separate system of records consisting of County-wide e-mails on Highwood or any other topic, I will review this issue with Alan McCormick as he represents the County in Highwood-related litigation and I will see him in person within the next few days.

Brian Hopkins
Deputy County Attorney, Civil Division
Cascade County Attorney's Office
voice: (406) 454-6904
fax: (406) 454-6949
bhopkins@co.cascade.mt.us

From: Hopkins, Brian
Sent: Monday, October 27, 2008 8:25 AM
To: Clifton, Brian
Cc: afmccormick@garlington.com
Subject: Clarification
Brian, To summarize our conversation this morning, on Friday I provided you a set of e-mail documents in response to a letter to the County Commissioners from Mr. Ron Gessaman, dated October 15, 2008, in which he requested a copy of all releasable County e-mails related to the Highwood Plant for the period Jan 1, 2007 to October 15, 2008. You are under no obligation to maintain these documents at your office. Further, the County declines to create a separate system of records consisting of all releasable e-mails generated by County employees related to Highwood Plant issues. I am not aware of any authority requiring the County to provide any member of the public with continuous access to County e-mail on this issue or any other of the myriad issues that the County deals with on a daily basis.
I had anticipated bringing over a copy of Commissioner Beltrone’s e-mails on a CD today. However, the secretary who was creating that disk is out sick today and I cannot locate her file on this.

Brian Hopkins
Deputy County Attorney, Civil Division

GeeGuy said...

Ready...fire...AIM!!!

GFGirl said...

Thank you Commissioner Briggs for your expeditious response. It is very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that the juvenile name calling by anonymous posters fan the flames of discontent.

It is unfortunate that the city's lack of credibility and violation of public trust causes suspicion to spread.

Now that we have an example from the city of what NOT to do, I hope we can learn from this experience and improve our process.

ECP insiders will probably want to brush the experience aside, pretend it never happened, refuse to examine why they failed and maintain the "status quo".

Of course "failure" would have to be defined by the enabling ordinance, choosing purposely to sell at a loss was a huge success.

Ron G. said...

This is the formal request letter to the county commissioners for the HGS/SME related email. Please note that the county selected the most resource intensive method to meet my request. Read for yourself my suggestion that electronic access be provided,instead of destroying "50,000 trees to print 700 pages of email"(a Hopkins' quote from last Tuesday's commission meeting). If any of the critics spent a few minutes checking the emails provided in two binders at Planning, you would notice that many of the printed emails in the binders are being reused from a collection previously provided for the litigations. In addition, there are huge time gaps with almost no emails; this includes recent weeks with permit issuance activity and negotiations for a $300K bond.


Dear Commissioners:

This letter is to confirm the request I made at the 10/14/08 county commission meeting. As stated at that meeting, I would like to view all incoming and outgoing county email that contains any mention of or pertains to SME or the HGS. The period I am interested in is from January 1, 2007 to the current date. I am also asking for access to all future email traffic on the subjects mentioned. I am aware that some county email might be subject to the personal privacy, security, etc. exceptions mentioned by Mr. Hopkins. If any emails fall under the exceptions, I would like to see a listing of these withheld emails. If possible, I would prefer redaction be practiced rather than withholding.

I understand that a similar request to view county email traffic was made in the past and the county responded by generating a huge pile of paper for review; a similar response would be a dramatic waste of resources—especially since I may not want copies of all or any of the emails. Utilizing today’s technology, I believe other alternative methods besides paper copies can be found to satisfy public access. I understand many state agencies in Helena are providing access to requested documents via CDs. This (CD access) would be acceptable to me or a read-only file on a designed publicly-accessible computer at the Clerk and Recorder’s Office or some other agreed location might also be a possibility. I am willing to consider other access options that the County might suggest.

I am making this request as an interested and concerned member of the local public. Other members of the public may also want to access these emails; this implies that whatever method the County ultimately agrees to use in providing the requested access should recognize this probability.

Please let me know as soon as possible how, when, and where access will be provided to the requested emails. [contact info deleted]

Sincerely,


Ronald L. Gessaman

Anonymous said...

GeeGuy, I think you were a little to quick with your:

Ready...fire...AIM!!!

unless of course you are referring to yourself!

GeeGuy said...

Not at all, anonymous. The original post included but a small bit of the available information on the topic. I think accusing the county of withholding information, or even suggesting that it is being done, based on one email of many is jumping the gun.


I'm not suggesting that Ron Gessaman did anything wrong in his request; clearly he didn't. In fact, if it were practical, I think his idea is a great one.

Unfortunately, the government has no obligation to provide us with 'real time' access to its communications. I wish it were so, but it isn't.

So I stand by my original comment. Suggesting wrongdoing while only informing people about one tiny portion of what has occurred is jumping the gun.