Mayor calls for $600 fine if council members breach confidential info

Courier photo by Priscilla Waggoner Alamosa City Manager Heather Sanchez, foreground, and Councilor Michael Carson.

ALAMOSA — A Wednesday night city council work session on “confidentiality concerns” has led Mayor Ty Coleman calling for council members to be personally fined “at least $600,” if confirmed of sharing confidential, privileged information with members of the media or others in the public.

When asked if they were uncomfortable with the mayor’s suggestion of a fine, none of the councilors indicated opposition.

The work session, begun by City Manager Heather Sanchez and City Attorney Eric Schwiesow, related to “two quick instances”, both connected to the early morning November breach of city data by an unidentified city employee who later resigned.

The first instance involved a mid-morning “confidential” city email sent to staff, stating a press release would be sent to the media that afternoon announcing the individual had been identified in the data breach, but his identity would not be shared, and the matter was closed as a personnel issue.

“Within an hour of sending that confidential email, [Schwiesow] and I were contacted by the media,” Sanchez said. “That first breach wasn’t the worst, but it goes against group expectation.”

The second incident was more serious, she said, when “that very same day,” it became known that the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office had learned the identity of the individual who breached the city’s server.

“These types of breaches really make us, as staff, think twice about what we’re going to share. It’s going to dampen what we’re going to tell you,” she told the council. “We’re really going to have to be thinking what is a need-to-know and what are the details council doesn’t need to know. I’m not sure that’s what council wants either.”

Schwiesow then addressed council, stating that the “city is devoted to transparency” but there are situations that are confidential and privileged, some by law — such as personnel discussions — and others by choice, such as conversations between himself and council (referred to as attorney-client privilege) and conversations held during executive session.

“Only council, as a whole, can decide which conversations are privileged and which are not,” he said. “The decision to waive [that privilege] cannot be made by a single individual.”

Sanchez then brought up council members’ Code of Conduct, which requires members to observe confidentiality. Individuals who repeatedly violate the code of conduct “can be reprimanded or formally sanctioned by council or removed from committee assignments. Serious infractions can lead to other sanctions,” she said.

But she advocated for council members to “talk to each other” first and address the problem behavior, even if those are “hard conversations.”

Councilor Jan Vigil appreciated the topic being discussed.

“We don’t know who leaked that first email to the paper…I’m really bothered by that. It’s someone in this room and I’m just upset because this is not how things have been. I’ve been on council for 11 years, and it has never been like this,” Vigil said.

“I think the person who did that wants to see us burn, wants to see us in chaos, wants to see us mess up and maybe finds some joy in our mishaps. And that’s not to say that it’s going to be withheld from the paper. No one is withholding any information,” Vigil said.

“But we are a team. We do things together. And if you’re the one who’s leaking information, you’re not being a good team member and it bothers me,” Vigil said.

Mayor Coleman echoed Vigil’s sentiment.

“I was angry and frustrated and really saddened that we had someone in our organization breach the situation that should remain confidential,” Coleman said. “I did some research to see what we can do to send a strong message this won’t be tolerated and [I propose] at least a $600 fine and [the breach] would be brought up in a public meeting.

“If we don’t have trust, we don’t have anything. If a person can’t trust that we can talk in private and not have information released to the public, then a lot of people are not going to feel comfortable sharing information with the team that we need to make a positive difference.

“I hope this is the last time because, if someone breaches information and I find out about it, everybody’s going to know about it. Trust me on this,” Coleman said.

On Thursday, when asked by the Valley Courier about the legality of a city manager restricting information shared with council to need-to-know, Schwiesow responded, “She was merely reiterating to council what I told her. If I or any other member of staff or other councilor cannot rely on council protecting privileged information, we will have to adjust what information we provide in what contexts, in order to try to protect the city from the rogue actions of whichever council member(s) it may be that does not respect that privilege is held by council as a whole.”

When asked if levying a fine against someone who may be reporting government misconduct would violate whistleblower protection in Colorado, Schwiesow referred to CRS 24-50.5-101 to -107, “which provide whistleblower protections unless the employee knows the information is false or discloses with disregard for truth, or discloses information on records closed to public inspection or discloses information which is confidential under any other law.”

Next step, Schwiesow said, “Staff will draft up amendments to Council's Policy Manual based on this discussion, for council to act on at a subsequent meeting. It is not an ordinance, so it’s just adopted by motion at one meeting, which is public.”

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