September 11, 2012
A Colorado Springs city councilman is refusing to make public emails in which the El Paso County treasurer takes him to task for going on another ratepayer-funded water tour and asking the city clerk to redraw council districts in his favor.
Councilman Bernie Herpin said he considers the emails personal communication with his mentor and longtime friend, El Paso County Treasurer Bob Balink.
The Gazette initially asked Herpin to voluntarily provide the emails. When he declined, the newspaper filed a request Monday under the Colorado Open Records Act.
The city has three days to respond to the request. Herpin said Tuesday that the emails are private.
“Mr. Balink is a longtime close friend who often critiques me and provides personal advice,” Herpin told The Gazette in an email, which Herpin also sent to City Attorney Chris Melcher and others.
“I consider his emails to me personal communications between friends and not city business. Most are usually sent to my home email account,” Herpin said.
Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, a Denver-based watchdog group, said the emails are public documents.
“Obviously, they’re discussing official business,” Toro said. “Even if Balink had sent it on a personal email to Herpin’s personal email, they’re still discussing public business and spending public money. That’s subject to open records (laws), regardless.”
Herpin said he has participated in Colorado Springs Utilities’ two-day tour of the city’s water system at least twice before. The most recent tour, last week, cost ratepayers $25,000. It was invitation-only and included 73 other elected officials and community leaders.
In one email, Balink criticized Herpin about again participating in the tour; it was sent to Herpin’s government email account.
Balink sent the email chastising Herpin about his “self-serving” redistricting attempt to Herpin’s personal email account.
Toro said some public officials “think they can get away with hiding their correspondence from public view” by using personal email accounts.
“But the law is clear that that doesn’t work,” Toro said. “It’s very clear that if you’re discussing public business on a private email account, that’s still something that the public is entitled to review.”
In an interview Monday, Balink said he deleted the emails.
“Balink is right. This is public money, and it needs to be treated that way,” Toro said.
“Colorado Springs Utilities is supposed to be operated for the benefit of Colorado Springs, not to give Herpin an annual trip.”
Balink said he also criticized Herpin for asking City Clerk Sarah Johnson to redraw council districts to his advantage.
Balink said he thought it was “horrible” and “self-serving” for Herpin to advocate for a new council district that would free him from the potential of running against a minority-approved candidate.
“I razzed him on the self-serving redistricting and I razzed him on the water tour because I’m just trying to get them to think,” Balink said. “We have to talk about efficiency in government. We have to set our priorities better. That’s all I’m doing.”