'Special master' says most withheld city e-mail personal

A court appointee tasked with the review of thousands of pages of e-mail from city personnel has upheld the city's stance that the documents were appropriately withheld from a public records request because the majority of the documents are, in fact, personal in nature.

The Mohave County Superior Court appointed Rebecca A. Albrecht as "special master" to read through the more than 7,200 pages that local resident Travin Pennington had requested.

Because of the circumstances of the case, the city took the burden of the bill, paying 75 percent of the $300-an-hour cost. Albrecht, who formerly served as a Superior Court judge for 24 years in Arizona, recently determined that most of the messages were indeed personal, and her report and determination will be passed to Mohave County Superior Court Judge Charles W. Gurtler in time for a hearing scheduled Oct. 26, when Gurtler is expected to make a final ruling.

Albrecht questioned the validity of withholding only about 164 pages of the total 7,209. After Albrecht questioned those pages, according to Pennington, the plaintiff in the case, the city's attorneys agreed to release the majority of them. City Attorney Carl Cooper then reviewed the documents and said Monday that he too agreed "about 90 pages" of the 164 "should either be released outright or with redactions."

Reporting on a teleconference held Wednesday with his and the city's attorneys, Pennington said a good portion of the questionable documents are between then-City Manager Paul Beecher and country radio newscaster Dave Hawkins.

Beecher had responded to an e-mail from Finance Director Coral Loyd written in April about "Dave" being "a little concerned about some of his e-mails, too, as most of us state our 'personal opinions' in casual conversation."

Beecher responded, "Not public," and wrote later, "I won't give him up."

The city, indeed, didn't give up Hawkins, at least not for several months. The city is now expected to release the majority of the communications between Beecher and Hawkins.

Pennington received nearly 5,600 pages of e-mail messages from several city employees in early spring, when he made his initial request. But when the city withheld approximately 8,300 additional pages, Pennington sought legal counsel. After filing a claim in July, the city released about 1,100 additional pages.

The city continued to release documents throughout the proceedings.

After Wednesday's teleconference, it has been determined that the dozen or so e-mail messages Beecher sent to this reporter also will be released.

The city's attorneys had turned over an additional 14 pages last week, bringing the total count of pages disclosed since the suit was filed at 1,146, according to Pennington's attorney. That number does not include the approximately 90 the city expects to release in the future.

David Bodney of Steptoe & Johnson, Pennington's legal counsel, wrote Wednesday after the teleconference: "As the process before our Special Master continues to unfold, the City continues to admit that it withheld e-mail records wrongfully, and that a good many of them, in fact, should have been released months ago."

He said that since filing the special action, the city has released 1,146 pages "that it previously had withheld in violation of the Arizona Public Records Law."

Reporting on the teleconference, Bodney said the city "admitted wrongfully redacting information from a significant number of additional e-mail communications," and he said the special master continues to review records the city maintains are "in the best interest of the city."

"At bottom, a citizen should not be put to the expense and delay of litigating against city hall to ensure compliance with the state law that governs the city's duties to disclose such records to the public. Travin Pennington has shouldered the burden of shining a light on how Paul Beecher conducted business as city manager. The more the city conducts government in the open, the more the citizens of Kingman can contribute to the city and protect its best interests."

Jones, Skelton & Hochuli Attorney Lisa Wahlin was unavailable for comment Tuesday or Wednesday due to a family emergency. She is expected to provide her opinion of the proceedings at a later date.

Calls to City Attorney Carl Cooper also were not returned Tuesday and Wednesday.

Pennington's inquiries have turned up documents that have since sparked controversy.

A series of e-mail messages about the sale of well sites in Golden Valley to a Las Vegas developer, Jim Rhodes, and the illegal waiving of fees for a charter school in Kingman were issues unveiled due to Pennington's e-mail records request.

Most recently, a resident joined a growing group of people in Kingman calling for the resignations of city officials when she read an e-mail from Vice Mayor Dave French, who called her a "witch" after she wrote an e-mail about a concern she had with growth in Kingman.