Call it The Curious Case of the Clerical Copies.
Or maybe Documentgate.
Dwight Brock, a dogged criminal prosecutor before becoming Clerk of Courts, was mystified this spring when similar public records requests made to his office and the office of the county administration yielded different results in terms of both the number of documents produced and the amount charged.
He set about finding answers in an investigation that has taken on a new dimension since the matter first came up as the author of the public records request has filed to run against Brock for his post.
The facts of the case, to use a bit of detective lingo, are as follows.
In March, John Barlow, a former executive with Western Auto and Safelite, asked both Brock and the county managers' office, for copies of communications between the clerk's office and that of Commissioner Georgia Hiller.
From the county he got more than 1,300 documents and was charged $133 for the time and material. Brock's office gave him 374 documents and charged him $209.
Why the difference?
After further investigation Brock offers the following thoughts. Many of the documents Barlow received from the county were copies of blast emails the county sends out on an almost daily basis, he discovered. Things like meeting notices and news releases that really don't match what Barlow requested, Brock said.
Barlow, who is challenging Brock, acknowledges there is some of that type of material in the 1,300 pages, but says it isn't a large amount. The most frequently appearing items are emails from either Brock of his top assistant, Crystal Kinzel, to Hiller, Barlow said.
When the two requests were filled, Barlow was critical of Brock for having Kinzel, who makes $83 an hour including benefits, review the documents from the clerk's office for sensitive information such as Social Security or bank account numbers.
The county staffer doing that job was paid just $28 an hour, Barlow's invoice shows.
But Brock unearthed a memo from the County Attorney's Office that states a staff member there spent more than five hours reviewing documents at a cost of $42 per hour. That would imply a cost of $210 and make the county's bill to Barlow higher than the one he received from Brock.
But Assistant County Manager Mike Sheffield said it's county policy to charge the public the lowest hourly pay rate of an employee who could do the work involved. Even though the staff member who did the review makes $42 an hour, including benefits, the work could have been done by a $28-an-hour worker so Barlow was charged that amount, Sheffield said.
Plus Sheffield notes, the first hour of an employee's time is free to the requester, so Barlow was charged for four hours at $28 an hour, accounting for $112 of his $133 bill.
Brock says the state Legislature, in an effort to derive revenue from clerks of court statewide, requires him to set his fees and service charges at the maximum level. He has to sign a form saying he's done so each year to get his budget certified.
"The state sees clerks as money raisers," Brock said.
Brock is taking the electoral challenge from Barlow seriously, as evidenced by his effort to account for the differing results from a simple public records request.
In an email his campaign sent out over the weekend he wrote, "Stay tuned; this promises to be a hard fight."