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Be transparent, for transparency sake

Editor's column
By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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It’s déjà vu 2010. And the “t” word is transparency.

In early 2010, then Lincoln city manager Jim Estep would not answer whether Police Chief Brian Vizzusi was being quietly and unexpectedly fired.

And July 2016, Lincoln city manager Matt Brower is not answering questions about just-resigned Police Chief Rex Marks. Nobody at City Hall will talk about why Marks no longer works here; Marks left before we could ask him if he was pushed out or resigned on his own.

Under California law, agencies are required to provide public information to media. In Lincoln, we have to work hard at getting that information.

Six years ago, when we repeatedly asked if Vizzusi’s job was in trouble, city officials said Vizzusi was just on vacation.

But Vizzusi wasn’t on vacation; we found out he was instead on paid leave after his officers gave him a vote-of-no-confidence. And our reporter found him at City Hall talking to Estep behind closed doors.  

We found that out but not until after constantly asking Estep and City Council members for four weeks why Vizzusi wasn’t at work. We got hung up on, yelled at and our  reporter was even blamed for “accosting” the city manager during his lunch hour at a restaurant a few buildings away for asking such a question.

Asking when and if Vizzusi would return to work, we received the non-answer that a press release would soon tell us. We never received the press release but were left with questions never answered to this day.

The public has a right to the answers; the questions are a given under the California Public Records Act and the state Constitution.

Here we are again, six years later, asking questions about another police chief’s supposed resignation and being stonewalled by the current city manager of one year, Matt Brower.

“Complete and accurate information is necessary to increase public understanding of government and help decision makers, including elected officials and voters, make informed decisions,” according to Transparent California, which provides information on compensation of public employees.

Our communication with Brower shows he isn’t forthcoming, either. Brower has made it hard for us to report what Marks’ severance amount ended up costing the city.

On July 5, we requested from Brower and Lincoln public information officer Jill Thompson a hard copy of Marks’ severance package. The city manager told us July 1 that Marks resigned but he would give us no other information.

On July 6, Thompson gave us Marks’ employment agreement but not the severance package. The employment agreement indicated that Marks would not get a severance payout if he resigned.

On July 8, we emailed Brower again asking how much pay and benefits Marks received. We asked again for a copy of a severance agreement because that is fully disclosable, according to Nikki Moore, the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s legal counsel.

Fourteen minutes later, Brower emailed back saying, “…As you know we are very leery of breaking California law by disclosing protected info. I will discuss your request, along with the referenced case that you provide, with the City attorney and get back to you. …”

We left a message about our request’s status on July 11. The next day, the public information officer emailed an itemization of the severance compensation paid to Marks. In her email, Thompson said, “… As explained earlier, the severance agreement document itself remains confidential. Please let me know if you need any additional information regarding the severance compensation.”

The itemization document raised more questions than answers, i.e. did Marks resign as Brower stated the week before? Because, according to his employment agreement, Marks was not eligible for severance pay if he resigned.

The itemization list makes it hard to determine what was legally obligated to Marks and what was specifically severance.

And why didn’t the city supply the severance package as required by law?

Even more disturbing was the city manager and the city attorney visiting our reporter and trying to control how we printed the information from the itemization document. Brower didn’t want us to itemize the payouts, besides the three-months’ salary. He wanted us to lump together the vacation, sick leave, health benefits, and phone, vehicle and uniform allowances amount instead of listing specific amounts.

Due to the city manager’s lack of communication, we gave Brower a California Public Records Act request Friday. We’re asking for Marks’ severance package, the list of concerns regarding Marks by the Lincoln Peace Officers Association and the final report regarding the investigation of Marks.

The state’s Government Code §6250-6268 states that “access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.”

It  is disappointing that the city manager wasn’t forthcoming and our only other choice to get the information was to file a public records act request Friday.

Under the public records act, the responding agency has 10 days to comply with a records request.

The Lincoln city manager should reconsider his actions in withholding public information and respond before the 10 days are up. Officials shouldn’t need any laws telling them to be transparent.

Carol Feineman can be reached at carolf@goldcountrymedia.com or 774-7972.