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Letter To The Editor: Concerns With County Financial Disclosure Forms And Public Access Procedures

on March 15, 2017 - 9:35am
By EDWARD BIRNBAUM
Los Alamos

The Feb. 3 issue of the Los Alamos Daily Post had a story (link), which caught my eye regarding the violation of the Code of Ethics in Hobbs as reported by State Auditor Tim Keller. Apparently, Hobbs public officials were not filing the required financial disclosures and perhaps more importantly, were not recusing themselves from voting on official business issues when their personal financial interests were involved.

Members of the County Council and the Board of Public Utilities here in Los Alamos are responsible for making decisions involving many millions of dollars, so the issue of conflicts between what's best for the County and what's best for a particular public official is non-trivial.

The only practical means any member of the Public has to check on potential conflicts of interest is access to the financial disclosure document filed with the County. These documents are available through the "Inspection of Public Records" link on the left side of the County website, which is the County's way of handling Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA). Clicking on that link allows you to request public records by phone, mail and e-mail (inspect-records@lacnm.us).

I decided to explore how difficult this process was here in Los Alamos and what kinds of information was reported, so I requested a bunch of financial disclosure records via e-mail, including the records for all the County Councilors and BPU Board members, the County Attorney and County Clerk, as well as two senior administrators for the County and for the DPU, including Harry Burgess and Timothy Glasco. For some obscure reason, my initial e-mail request went unanswered. I eventually called the office some 10 days later, never having heard anything, and learned that they never received my e-mail, but with the help of their IT Department, the request was officially received. So a word to the wise, if you don't get confirmation of your request, follow up in person or by phone!

I have now received all of the disclosure forms I requested. Based on email dates, my request was officially received March 1 and I received a pdf file via e-mail with the individuals street addresses redacted March 7. One rather disturbing feature of this process is that one of the disclosure forms sent to me was signed and dated March 3 and two were signed and dated March 7, i.e., after the date my request was received by the FOIA Office, which strongly suggests that they were not filled out by the respondent in a timely manner, and in fact completion may have been triggered by my request. In addition, one form wasn't signed or dated. The fact that some of these forms were dated after the request and the absence of a signature and date on one form raises concerns that the problems discovered in Hobbs may also exist in LA County. How does LA County ensure that these forms are completed correctly and in a timely manner?

In looking over the disclosure forms I saw a couple of other problems in addition to the issue of timely filing. First, some officials use abbreviations for the businesses and organizations in which they have an interest.  Second, it isn't always clear what the organization listed does even if the full name of the organization is specified. For example, if someone were to list an ownership interest in the JS, LLC, a member of the public would probably have no way of knowing that this is actually the John Smith, LLC, nor would they likely have any idea whether or not such ownership could be a source of potential conflicts of interest.

Finally, one has to ask why do we have a gatekeeper for access to these particular documents? The financial disclosure documents have very little personal information included. If these documents were routinely scanned after every election, or annually for those not running for election in a particular year, and then made available via a link to the County website, there would be no need to have to go through the FOIA process, which is an inconvenience to both County staff and the Public and makes it harder for members of the Public to keep track of what is going on in County government. If someone truly feels threatened by the Public having easy access to the very limited amount of information asked for on these forms, they probably shouldn't be in such an office.

I have to agree with Los Alamos County Councilor Chris Chandler that these document should be routinely scanned on at least an annual basis or when a significant change occurs, and made quickly available to the Public via the County website.


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