Council expected to approve $600 fine for violating confidentiality

Courier file photo Alamosa City Manager Heather Sanchez, right, and Alamosa City Councilor Michael Carson during an Alamosa City Council meeting. Council is expected to vote on a motion that will levy a $600 fine against any council member confirmed of breaching confidential information.

Motion to be introduced during Wednesday’s meeting

ALAMOSA — Members of Alamosa’s city council will consider a motion during Wednesday night’s meeting to update the Council Policy Manual with two items that have been of significant interest in recent months.

One item relates to concerns raised by former Alamosa Police Chief Ken Anderson related to department head access to city council, and the second relates to council members maintaining confidentiality.

In his resignation, Anderson had cited significant problems resulting from an established lack of communication between city council members and department heads, especially in situations where the department head’s supervisor is not addressing concerns that have been raised.

In response, should the motion be approved, the following language will be added to the manual addressing city council policies and procedures.

"There may be times when a department head feels that their concern on a matter has not been resolved satisfactorily working with the City Manager. Notwithstanding Section 7 of Article III of the Charter, if several attempts to resolve the concern with the City Manager have failed, the department head may place the item on a regular City Council agenda for discussion. There shall be no adverse action taken by the City Manager against the department head for placing the item on the agenda."

Section 7 of Article III clarifies that city council and the mayor will deal with administrative service through the city manager exclusively and neither council, its members nor the mayor will direct or interfere with the city manager’s supervision and management of city employees.

The second item, which sparked several emotionally laden comments during the Feb. 7 work session, relates to concerns about members of the city council respecting the confidential nature of information designated as such.

City Manager Heather Sanchez briefed city council concerning a situation where information in an email marked “Confidential” by the city attorney had then been “leaked” to another agency by an unknown person presumably on city council. The email contained the identity of the city employee who was suspected of breaching city data and subsequently resigned. The city attorney had determined that the identity of the individual should remain confidential.

Sanchez — at the direction of city attorney Erich Schwiesow — issued a warning to council members that, should the leaks not be stopped, staff will be forced to consider providing council with only “the information you need to know.”

In an unusual display of anger, Mayor Ty Coleman proposed that a $600 fine be levied against any council member who can be confirmed of leaking confidential information with the promise that, if it happens again, the discussion will be brought up in public so that “everyone will know.”

Following the work session, the following language was drafted for inclusion in the Council Policy Manual. (Language in italics indicates new language added.)

"Maintain the confidentiality of material discussed during executive sessions or received from the City Attorney when designated “privileged” and/or “confidential.”  Information presented or discussed in executive session or received in other forms from the City Attorney designated privileged and/or confidential should not be shared with anyone at any time."

Additional language reads, “Council Members who intentionally and repeatedly do not follow proper conduct may be reprimanded or formally censured by the Council and lose committee assignments.  Serious infractions of the Code of Conduct, such as even single violations of confidentiality, could lead to other sanctions as deemed appropriate by Council.  Depending on the severity of the infraction, Council may impose a fine of up to $600 per instance, which would require a majority vote."

Information contained in an executive session is clearly, by statute, required to be kept confidential to the setting of the meeting and those in attendance. What material will be designated by the city attorney as privileged or confidential is not defined in the policy, leaving it open to interpretation.

The Valley Courier reached out to Schwiesow asking to know what criteria he would use in designating information as privileged and or confidential, which would prohibit it from being shared with the public.

“Whether something is privileged is a fact and situation-specific question of the application of law to facts,” he wrote. “Much of my communication with Council or staff is not privileged, but when I conclude that it is, I mark it as such, or tell them (if it's a verbal conversation) that it is.

“The process of determining what is and is not privileged is more an art than a science (as is the case with much of the law), so I can't give you hard and fast criteria on when I will designate a communication as privileged,” he wrote.

During the Feb. 7 work session, Schwiesow had previously indicated that he would refer to communication with council as attorney-client privileged, which covers a wide range of subjects. In comparison, the executive committee is specific about what can and cannot be discussed in session and what subsequent actions must be taken in public where there is a public record of events.

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