There are signs on the seventh floor of City Hall that say “authorized employees only” that weren't there two weeks ago. And, for the last week, city staff have been considering installing gates to keep uninvited members of the public out of parts of City Hall where no public services are rendered. The staff on the seventh floor, mostly bookkeepers, accountants and members of the comptroller's staff, are jumpy—nervous, it seems, at the sight of strangers.
What has them on edge?
It was a request for public documents gone wrong, a confrontation between city staff and Union-Tribune reporters Brooke Williams and Danielle Cervantes last month. The reporters wanted to review public records, as they had in the past. City staff wanted to know why a couple of strangers were wandering around their offices. Arguing ensued, and the reporters were asked to leave the building empty-handed.
The events come to light during a tense time in San Diego's public-records history. Recently, the Union-Tribune criticized city staff for asking the paper to cover costs related to a series of database inquiries. And a dispute over e-mails requested by voiceofsandiego.org resulted in the online news site threatening to sue the city. That situation is still being resolved by the City Attorney's office.
CityBeat's account of events comes from an interview with Williams and an ad-hoc “incident report” put together by the city in which four city staffers described what they witnessed. Cervantes told CityBeat that, for the most part, Williams spoke for her as well. A Union-Tribune blog reported a version of the story, but the paper didn't know about the existence of the report until CityBeat called Williams and Cervantes for comment.
On June 17, Williams and Cervantes, both reporters on the U-T's “Watch Dog” investigative team, decided to go to City Hall in person to request and review public records. Williams told CityBeat that she'd left several phone messages asking for the records and finally got fed up. She said she's requested documents in person in the past with no problems.
According to the city's report, Veronica Murillo, executive secretary to the comptroller, noticed the pair of reporters “wandering unescorted” on the sixth floor. Murillo said in the report that she knew they weren't city staff because “one of them was wearing a tank top.” Williams said Murillo offered to walk them up to the seventh floor to help them with their request.
“When I grabbed my jacket, they offered to help me put it on,” Murillo wrote. “They were being overtly nice, so I knew something was up.”
Murillo passed the reporters to Financial Service Operations Manager Marcelle Rossman. Rossman said she offered to assist the reporters and asked them to wait in the entryway. While Rossman searched the city's file system for the documents, she said, the two reporters “walked about 25 yards into the Comptroller Offices and were examining the labels on storage boxes temporarily stored in the hallways.”
Williams recalls looking at the boxes but said they were located near the area where they were waiting—she said they didn't get up from the waiting area and that she never touched anything. Cervantes said there was a binder of documents near her on the couch; she flipped through it but then returned it.
“I anticipated Marcelle would come out and say we could look in the boxes,” Williams said.
Rossman told the two to return to the waiting area while she looked into their request. The reporters, however, walked back into the office, Rossman said, and she repeated her request for them to wait. At this point, things got heated, but neither Williams nor Rossman can say how. The three women began arguing over whether the reporters had the right to review the documents then and there. Williams said the documents she wanted—mostly checks from the city to vendors—are “basic public documents” that she had no trouble getting in the past. Rossman wanted time to review the request and to get advice from a city attorney, whom Rossman said she couldn't reach.
“My encounter with Brooke and Danielle was very uncomfortable and a little scary,” Rossman recalled in the report. “They were very rude, very forceful. I don't intimidate easily and I was intimidated.”
Williams said much the same thing: “If anyone was intimidated, it was us.”
At this point, Bill Harris, one of the mayor's spokespeople, arrived on an unrelated errand. “I witnessed Danielle Cervantes and Brooke Williams in strident conversation with Marcelle Rossman,” Harris said in the report. “I became concerned because Marcelle had been literally backed against a wall by these two reporters.”
Harris interceded and asked the reporters to return to the waiting area. Eventually, he called Darren Pudgil, the mayor's chief spokesperson, who asked the two reporters to leave the building.
After the incident, Pudgil arranged to have the four staffers involved describe their version of events, which they then sent to the City Attorney's office.
Gina Coburn, spokesperson for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, couldn't clarify whether the two were within their rights to demand records on the spot. But a procedural handbook she forwarded to CityBeat does say that someone from the City Attorney's office should review all requests from media.
Meanwhile, the city is looking into installing gates on the seventh floor of City Hall.
“Our goal is to ensure that city employees have a safe environment in which to work,” Pudgil wrote in an e-mail. “These are floors in which no direct services are provided to the public. They contain office space for city employees who would have no reason to believe that any non-city personnel would be wandering around their cubicles. To prevent this from happening in the future, City staff is looking at ways to limit access to employees only.” A version of this story was first published on Monday evening, July 6. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.