What started this whole thing?
The Democrat and Chronicle published a story on Wednesday detailing Rachel Barnhart’s findings on Deputy Mayor Cedric Alexander’s schedule. The information, based on open records request, showed Alexander was away from City Hall a significant number of days, has outside business interests and may do outside work on city time.
What was the city’s response?
City spokesman James Smith sent a statement to the media that did not address the substance of the issues raised by Barnhart. The statement said Barnhart’s “claims seem to be rooted more in political sour grapes than a basis in fact, her almost daily criticism of City officials and City government appears to be personally motivated and raises questions about her frame of mind and personal bias.”
Barnhart issued a statement condemning Smith’s personal attack.
What was the mayor’s response?
The following day, Mayor Lovely Warren posted on Facebook that the city has a new online system that archives FOIL requests. She said the public will see that Barnhart filed numerous requests. Warren said Barnhart “flooded city government with many frivolous information requests.” Warren said Barnhart “harassed local churches, businesses and citizens to quiz them about my relationship with them. Many of them have felt uncomfortable and badgered…she has allegedly followed some people that she thinks I’m close to.” Warren ended the post by saying, “I worry that my former opponent may need some support, and I hope those closest to her are supporting her…I am appealing to them to please get her the help she may need.”
Why did Barnhart file FOIL requests?
The vast majority of FOIL requests pertain to a project reviewing the city checkbook registry. This project has been ongoing since July. The registry contains hundreds of thousands of checks. The checkbook registry is a good way to see spending that is done out of the public eye, as smaller amounts and business grants don’t have to be approved by City Council. Barnhart has done this exercise before when she was employed as a journalist.
Out of all those checks, Rochester for All flagged only about 120 for further review. The purpose of the spending for each check was not included in the registry. The city gives many grants to businesses. A few checks were businesses that moved out of the city, raising the question of whether they received grant money or the check was for an expenditure. (The issue of businesses receiving grant money and leaving for the suburbs is one revealed by our analysis. We hope to explore that in the future.)
We filed FOIL requests for records relating to each check Thanksgiving weekend. We decided to file separate requests for each check, thinking that would make it easier for city staff.
We are not done with our review, but we think it will provide value to citizens. We have found potential political spending with tax dollars, many thousands of dollars spent on swag and some frivolous items. Some of this spending is not unique to the Warren administration. This project has taken months, as it’s done in our free time and relies on open records. We want to make sure we give you a full picture.
Barnhart’s information on Alexander proves the value of these FOIL requests.
Did Barnhart harass churches, businesses and citizens?
As part of this exercise, Barnhart and Rochester for All Director Eric Stevens contacted only four businesses by email and social media. Barnhart left one voicemail at a salon, and sent electronic messages to several addresses associated with the business. The other three businesses were contacted only one time. Of the four businesses, one responded.
Barnhart never contacted churches or citizens. She never asked anyone about their relationship with the mayor. She never repeatedly called or emailed anyone. She never followed any of Warren’s associates.
A salon owner has complained publicly that she was uncomfortable with being contacted through several channels. She was offended by our grant v. services question, which she felt implied wrongdoing. This salon received a check for $978. There were a number of flags: the salon offered a service that doesn’t typically receive grants, the salon received a smaller grant than usual and the salon moved out of the city not long after getting the grant. The fact is, some checks end up being questionable expenditures for services, and not grants. Our question was logical, private and based on public information. Barnhart has sent her a message of apology.
Doesn’t filing that many FOILs eat up city resources?
The city has staff dedicated to filling open records requests.
By law, the city has the right to delay responding to open records requests if it needs more time. The law gives a deadline of 20 business days, but governments can set a later, reasonable deadline within that 20 day period.
Sometimes, governments call people ask if there’s a way to narrow down the request. For example, “I see you filed a lot of requests for XYZ. That’s going to be thousands of pages and take weeks. If you tell me what you’re looking for, we can save time, effort and money.”
The city never contacted Barnhart to discuss any issues with the FOILs. If it had, she could have told them she was trying to distinguish grants from expenditures on many of the requests. In fact, one FOIL request was for a list of businesses receiving assistance. When she received the information, Barnhart withdrew dozens of requests, as she no longer needed information for those particular checks.
The city filled most of Barnhart’s FOILs to date. However, some require further information. Barnhart will likely file more FOILs related to this project. We have no complaints about how the city has handled our requests and the staff has always been professional.
It’s not uncommon for watchdog groups and journalists to request large amounts of data. In the past, Barnhart has examined the number of people using electric vehicle charging stations and the amount of after-hours revenue the city collects from parking meters.
Is this “sour grapes?”
It’s an inescapable fact that Barnhart ran for mayor against Warren. But she is not a candidate. She is not running against Warren for mayor in the future. Barnhart is a private citizen.
Barnhart ran for mayor, in part, because she believes there are ethical problems in this administration. Those concerns have not disappeared. Barnhart is transparent about her views, which is important.
Filing FOILs and exposing truth is what Barnhart has done her entire adult life. This is consistent behavior. She founded Rochester for All to continue fighting for good government. She can’t do it as a journalist anymore. But she still has valuable skills to contribute and thousands of followers on social media. Barnhart is not alone, as there is a team of people supporting this all-volunteer effort.
Some people have asked, “Aren’t you just looking for dirt?” Rochester for All is a citizen watchdog group. That means reviewing government on many levels to ensure ethical conduct and wise use of taxpayer dollars. These exercises can be “fishing expeditions” that show nothing wrong. But if no one is asking these questions, we’ll never know the answers.
Barnhart is not targeting city government, though that has been her main focus during her career. Rochester for All has FOIL requests pending at other government agencies. We have already obtained records related to racial disparities in local arrests we hope to share soon.
We are deeply concerned about the mayor’s assault on the First Amendment. The actions of James Smith and Lovely Warren could have a chilling effect on anyone who scrutinizes city government. They attempted to intimidate and discredit Barnhart.
All citizens have a right to file FOILs. All citizens have a right to petition their government without fear of retribution. Warren publicly lied about Barnhart’s conduct and questioned her mental health. Barnhart faced unprecedented retaliation from her government.
We are investigating why the FOIL archive seems rigged to show Barnhart’s requests, but not thousands of others. We hope this doesn’t mean city resources were used for political gain.
We fear there is little recourse, as the bar is set very high for libeling a public person. (Barnhart is a public person.) Barnhart will likely ask the Office of Public Integrity, City Council and possibly the Attorney General to review the situation. The Code of Conduct forbids rudeness toward “any member of the public.” The Social Media Policy instructs employees to avoid demeaning and abusive comments. If city resources were used to attack Barnhart, that could constitute official misconduct.
This has been an upsetting experience for Barnhart. Her government victimized her in an attempt to keep her quiet. Perhaps the best recourse is public condemnation of City Hall’s astonishing conduct.