Dispute over city information-sharing policy raises questions

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 | 7:33 p.m. CST; updated 7:27 a.m. CST, Thursday, January 31, 2013

COLUMBIA — A dispute between Fourth Ward City Council candidate Bill Weitkemper and city officials over sharing information requests with other candidates has raised questions about the role of city government in council campaigns.  

Weitkemper, a former sewer superintendent who announced his campaign for the Fourth Ward seat in December, sent requests to City Clerk Sheela Amin for records related to departmental training and uniform budgets and contacts for representative employee groups. He had hoped to use this information in his campaign.

Amin sent the records related to Weitkemper's request not only to him but also to Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley, who is seeking re-election, and to candidate Ian Thomas.

“Below is information one of you has requested," Amin wrote in her email response. "For efficiency purposes, we thought it would be best to provide to all of you.”

While the information Weitkemper requested is public record, he believes notifying Dudley and Thomas was an “inappropriate” move that gave them an unfair advantage.

“If I know (the other candidates) are going to get the same information I get, it makes me think twice about asking for it,” he said.

But City Manager Mike Matthes said sharing responses to information requests from council candidates is a standard practice of city government.

During April’s race between Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe and challenger Bill Tillotson, he said, the city regularly distributed information from similar requests to both candidates.

Amin said she does not have records of any email exchanges from the Sixth Ward race but added that she recalls a formal records request from a noncandidate involving an incumbent candidate’s emails in which the incumbent was notified.

“This year was the first time I was asked to coordinate responses to city information requests from candidates,” Amin stated in an email to the Missourian. She said Wednesday that she and Matthes discussed the policy in early December.

An email from Amin dated Dec. 12 revealed that she employed the same language used in her response to Weitkemper in an exchange with Fifth Ward candidates Laura Nauser, Mark Jones and Susan “Tootie” Burns regarding proposed electric transmission lines and street projects on and near Providence Road.

Matthes said that while he understands Weitkemper’s frustrations with the policy, it is still a necessary procedure. He said there are measures the city can take to minimize any effects on political campaigns, such as leaving out the name of the candidate who requested the information.

“Our goal is to not affect the outcome of the election,” he said.

Matthes cited his membership in the International City/County Managers Association as a factor in his determination to remain politically neutral. In particular, he emphasized the seventh tenet of the organization’s code of ethics, which states:

“Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators. Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.”

This point was subtly emphasized at Saturday’s orientation for City Council candidates; the meeting’s informational PowerPoint concluded with a slide that included the sentence “All questions will be answered and communicated to all candidates.”

Thomas said he had no qualms with the city sharing information with all of the Fourth Ward candidates.

“It seems fair to me that the city should share it to be on the safe side,” he said. “If I had made an information request and it was sent to Daryl and Bill, I wouldn’t be concerned about it.”

But Weitkemper is unswayed. He believes city officials should have treated his emails to Amin as a request from a regular member of the public rather than as a request from a City Council candidate.

“They’re overstating their bounds, in my opinion,” he said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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