Monday, January 11, 2010

Water Bureau doesn't want to give me access

I had a bizarre experience with the Water Bureau today. I’m still a little shocked by it all, not even sure where to begin.

The net is PWB just handed me a bill for $57.72 for 8 little copies. Copies I won’t get until I pay this bill, never mind the 2 hours I spent downtown today sitting in a PWB conference room reading through binders to find those 8 pages. But therein lies the rub = 2 hours. They had someone sit and watch me read the documents that whole time. I was “supervised”. Supervised while reading two bid proposals and some score sheets. All of what I had in front of me was public information, and none of it would appear to pose a security issue… so why was I supervised? I don’t know.

I’ve noticed it isn’t easy to get public information from the Water Bureau. No matter what Randy Leonard claims (on April 11, 2009 , Leonard stood in front of 175 people at Glenco Elementary and said that all anyone has to do is pick up the phone to get documents from PWB; two weeks later PWB instituted a formal request policy with fees). But this really takes the cake. The whole experience was, bizarre. Here is how it went:

  • I was invited, by F. Jones of the Friends of the Reservoirs to accompany her on a visit to PWB to read some documents. Jones invited me because she thought it would be a good chance for me to see the PWB document library, as I may need to pull documents on behalf of MTNA someday. Jones had requested electronic copies of the documents in question (I’ve got something to say about this, later) and she was denied that request. She inquired about physical copies, and was told she’d be charged for staff time to pull and copy the documents ($171) and charged 25 cents each for the actual copies (# of pages undisclosed to her, but now that I’ve seen the material I can guess that the roughly 500 pages would have cost her upwards of $125). Jones made a plea for a fee waiver, a request based on the fact that her non-profit organization makes documents available to thousands of citizens. Request denied. So, Jones asked if she could just be given a chance to sit and read the documents down at PWB. They granted that request, a date was set, and I was invited.
  • We were not put in the document library, we were put in a conference room with 3 small binders and a handful of loose papers, all related to the contract that was recently awarded for the design of the new tank at Powell Butte (Powell Butte II). Kristen Small escorted us into the room and then sat down. When Small left for a few minutes at one point, Jones and I wondered aloud why we were being watched, woefully unaware that PWB was charging us for Small’s time to “supervise” us. On previous occasions, citizens like Jones were allowed in the library, on their own, for whatever time they were willing to dedicate to being there.
  • Within the first few minutes, Jones noticed she wasn’t given any of the names of the people on the panel that reviewed the bids for this contract. Jones had specifically requested the names of the people involved in the review panel/contract award process, so we asked Small if she could help Jones get that piece of information. Small was told by Mike Stuhr (head engineer) and Annette Dubishinsky that PWB was not authorized to disclose panel member identities, by city code. Jones corrected staff -- city code prohibits the disclosure of reviewer identities only until the point when the contract is awarded. The contract for Powell Butte II has already been signed. (Brownie points to Jones for being able to quote city code.) Shortly thereafter, Mike Stuhr appeared with the names. The seven panel members were as follows: 1) Jerry More, PWB; 2) Michael Angerinos, PWB, 3) Crystal Yezman, PWB, 4) Stan VandeBergh, PWB, 5) George Lozovoy, Parks Bureau, 6) Tamra Dickson, citizen, 7) Teresa Elliot, PWB. Notice that PWB does not seem to be following the City Auditor's report on consultant contracts, which advises against loading bid review panels with Bureau staff. (Update: I've posted the PTE Contract sheet that lists names and the money awarded with the contract.)
  • I learned that the panel members saw 2 bids: one from CH2MHill for $5,586,884; the other from Tetra Tech for $8,683,882. That's a $3million difference, and the panel favored CH2MHill. But, before the contract was signed and presumably after the panel's review, CH2MHill raised their bid to $8,455,246.
  • We read and read and read. When we finished, we asked for 8 pages to be copied, and we were told they’d be mailed. Our pages were only marked with these little sticky notes and I could imagine all sorts of mishaps that could occur between the conference room and the envelope that arrived at my door… what if a sticky fell off and they sent me one less page than what I’d hoped for, would I have to go all the way back downtown to find that page? “Can we just take the 8 copies now, I’ve got cash to cover the copy fee?” I pleaded. Small said she wasn’t “authorized” to give us copies, but she would see what she could do. TWENTY minutes later, we asked the front desk to check on Kristen. She reported that, “Kristen is furiously making those copies for you.” A total of 40 minutes later, Jimmy Brown approaches us with no copies. Instead he had a bill for $57.72 and a copy of the city policy on which he highlighted the passage that allows PWB to charge us for the “supervised” review.
  • I asked Jimmy Brown if he would send me a written bill, itemizing the $2 worth of copies and the $55 worth of supervision. I didn’t think anyone would believe this story without proof. PWB is restricting access to public information to “supervised” visits only, at a rate of $27.86/hr. That’s right, if you want to see any of the documents I saw, you can’t have them electronically (even though the RFP specifically stated that all bids were to be supplied in multiples of 12 hard copies PLUS an electronic copy), and you’ll have to pay to even so much as breathe on them.
  • If a citizen can't read a public record without being charged for the time it takes her to read the public record, citizen oversight is dead.
Update Jan 12
When I asked Jimmy Brown yesterday why we weren’t told at the start of the session that we’d be charged for the “supervision”, he replied something to the effect that the City policy was public information, and it wasn’t his fault if I hadn’t read it. I guess that’s true. I had read the policy, I just didn’t understand that the language could be leveraged to limit transparency.

I’ve now looked over the emails that led up to this misunderstanding. I think Mr. Brown could have been more clear.  Here is a chronological summary of the emails exchanged:

October 30, 2009
Jones made her request for:
“An electronic copy of all documents associated with the Ch2mHILL Powell Butte II reservoir design contract related to the selection committee and their ranking of the corporate proposals.”

November 5, 2009
Her request was acknowledged, and she was told it would cost $177, and that she would need to pay 50% up front.

Floy countered that she was looking for electronic copies, not paper copies. That the documents related to the panel selection committee should be in the 40 page range, not the 400 page range PWB was charging her for. She lobbied for a fee waiver based on FoR’s community information sharing mission, and she offered to make a site visit to read the documents.
November 6, 2009Brown responded to several people regarding Jones’ request, but failed to include Jones on that response. Brown detailed out the charges included in the PWB bill sent the day before. It reflects that Brown was also planning to copy and send the bids (roughly 300 pages), which Jones didn’t request. Brown asserted that the only way to get an electronic copy of the bids (which Jones didn’t ask to have) would be to pay PWB to scan them in (even though the RFP stated bids were to be supplied electronically).

Brown also wrote this: We would be willing to provide you the opportunity to come in and review the document(s) you've requested. Please note, per Public Records Policy there will be a charge for staff time associated with gathering the material. If there are pages that you would like to receive there will be a charge for a) scanning into a .pdf, and sending those documents electronically -- $.25/per page scanned; b) if copies of documents are made to give to you the charge is $.25/per copied page.
Note that Brown indicates there will be a charge for gathering the material for Jones to look at, but he does not say she will pay for the time it takes her to read it.

November 8, 2009
Jones presses again for a fee waiver. She also asks for an appointment to view the documents at PWB. Brown doesn’t respond for almost a month.

January 4, 2010
Brown responds with this:
Your request for a fee waiver has been denied.

The Bureau would like to afford you the opportunity to review the hard copy documents at its office, 1120 SW 5th, 6th Floor. In your review you may request that certain pages be duplicated. Bureau staff will make copies as requested, assessing a $.25 per page fee. Payment for copies must be received by staff prior to release.
The Bureau will make the hard copy documents available on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 1:30 PM. Please acknowledge via email that you are available on that date and time.

This would have been a good place for Brown to mention the fee for “supervision”. Note he only mentions the copy fee.

January 5, 2010
Floy counters with a new time, so that I can join = Monday, Jan 11 at the same time.

Brown responds with this:
Thank you for the confirmation. I will let folks know that you are available to review documents on January 11 at 1:30, not January 12 at 1:30. A PWB staff person will be assigned to assist you in the review process. Please meet at the 5th Floor, Portland Building and ask to speak with Kristen Small. We will provide a room for you to review the documents.

This is the first time anything is said that might indicate we were going to be babysat. But honestly, I didn’t understand that from Brown’s text.
January 11, 2010We show up. No one says anything about fees associated with Kristen Small’s “assistance”.

Here is the bill I was sent:
The amount is: $57.72
A. sub-total: staff time (document retrieval/supervision) - $55.72
(2 hours X $27.86/hr.)

B. sub-total: copies of marked documents - $2.00
(8 copies X $.25/copy)