Health Dept. deals with open records requests | Local News | myleaderpaper.com – Leader Publications

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The Jefferson County Health Department received 83 Sunshine Law requests for information in 2020 and 2021, a drastic increase from previous years.
Requests continue to come in this year, but not at the same pace as the previous two years when the number of COVID-19 cases in the county were higher and the Health Department recommended stricter mitigation efforts, said Jennifer Pinkley, the Health Department’s custodian of records and deputy director of agency administration.
“We are still getting Sunshine requests, just not as many as when there is a hot topic,” she said.
Health Department Director Kelley Vollmar said it has cost the agency a lot of money and staff time to respond to the requests, which suddenly started pouring in after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the county.
She said the Health Department spent $59,430.48 over the past two years handling Sunshine Law requests, with $23,021.88 going toward legal fees, and $36,408.60 for staff salary costs.
Vollmar said the Health Department received no Sunshine Law requests in 2019, one in 2018, and two in either 2016 or 2017, when the agency was looking into and ultimately deciding to participate in the St. Louis County Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), which was a hotly debated topic because of privacy concerns. 
“Those are the only ones I remember (receiving before the pandemic),” she said.
Vollmar said it’s been difficult to take care of the uptick in Sunshine Law requests.
“This has been a process of really learning how to best organize and be as efficient and effective with the time and the resources you have as possible, but I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the onslaught of requests we’ve had,” she said.
Vollmar said Health Department staff have spent about 600 hours dealing with the requests, with her and Jennifer Pinkley, the department’s custodian of records, completing most of the work. 
“We’ve had enough hours devoted to this that we’ve actually considered trying to figure out if we needed somebody in-house to be paid to respond to these,” Vollmar said.
A variety of people sent the requests to the Health Department over the last two years, including Jefferson County residents; reporters from the Leader and other media outlets; state representatives Shane Roden and Mary Elizabeth Coleman; and even Health Department board member Suzy Davis.
Of the 83 requests, 13 were from the Leader, and four were from other news outlets.
Roden said he filed a request for Vollmar’s emails from July 6-July 14 after hearing that she had been threatened in July 2020.
Mary Elizabeth Coleman requested a copy of the mask order ordinance the Health Department passed in August 2020. 
Davis sent 10 requests over the two-year period and was the only board member to submit requests.
“It’s not characteristic of board member behavior,” Vollmar said. “Typically, board members will have open lines of communication with a director and will utilize the opportunity to ask questions and either view documents or get answers to questions outside of a meeting, or outside of formal requests. I’ve never had a board member make a request before.” 
Vollmar said Davis has sent requests to see the attorney bills and was invited to view them at the Health Department. 
“The thing is she wants to take copies of them outside of the department, which she can’t because they have attorney -client privilege,” Vollmar said. 
Davis said she also has asked to see “exit reports” about people who were quarantined because of COVID-19, which Vollmar said is a medical interview taken at the end of a quarantine and is protected health information.
Davis also has asked for details about COVID-19-related deaths, including where the deaths happened and if the person who died had comorbidities.
She said that data would have shown people who died because of COVID-19 actually had the “seasonal flu.”
Davis said she feels like she has received just 10 percent of the information she requested.
“There were things they could produce for me and they didn’t,” she said. “They used the HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) as an excuse and I said, ‘Redact any personal information.’ If we could have had what I asked for to begin with, I could have shown where things (reported about COVID-19) were blown out of proportion.”
Davis said she feels it’s her duty as a board member to make sure the department is following the Sunshine Law and that is why she continued to make requests. 
Requests tie up
Health Department
Vollmar said she believes there has been a “concerted effort” to submit a lot of Sunshine Law requests to keep Health Department staff busy answering the requests.
“At first, I believed it was to gain information, just trying to see why we were making the decisions we were making and kind of look at those initial documents,” she said. “But after that, I believe it was almost in an attempt to keep us extremely busy and to ensure we were spending a lot of time digging through documents rather than being able to focus on the work of actually doing what we needed to do to run our (COVID-19) mitigation efforts.”
From July 29 to August 4, 2020, the Health Department received six similar requests for a copy of the bylaws, information about board member terms, expiration of each member’s term, and contact information for each board member.
Vollmar said she believes those requests were coordinated by people to tie up Health Department staff with busy work.
Davis said that was not her intention when she sent Sunshine Law requests.
“It really wasn’t that many,” she said. “Really, they wasted more of their own time by not just producing what I asked them for.”
Vollmar said the requests from Roden for her emails took more than 80 hours to complete.
“I believe there were over 3,000 responsive or potentially responsive documents,” she said. “Every last one of those had to be reviewed, redacted, and then it needed to be reviewed and what-not with our legal team before they were released. That’s the time-consuming part, going through every single line and ensuring what is in there is able to be released.”
Vollmar said she completes most of the redacting for any request and completed all of it for Roden’s request for her emails. 
Roden also said he was not part of an effort to waste the Health Department’s time.
“I was unaware of anybody else submitting Sunshine Law requests at that point in time,” he said.
Roden also said he does not believe Vollmar spent 80 hours gathering the information for his request.
He said he filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office over the request because it took a long time to fill, but once the information was available and he learned how much he was going to be charged for the information, he never picked up the documents.
Vollmar said the Health Department told him the cost of preparing the information for his request was $1,351.20, which was calculated using the $16.89 average hourly rate for clerical staff.
Roden said he has never charged anyone who requested copies of his emails, so he believed he was not going to be charged for the Health Department emails.
He said in the end he learned Vollmar was not threatened by email and he believed she was playing the victim card.
Former Health Department board attorney Jessica Mikale said in emails with Roden that Vollmar was threatened through a Facebook post, not an email.
Vollmar said she took the threat seriously.
“There have been over 43 Missouri Health directors who have left their positions since the beginning of the pandemic, including two state health directors,” Vollmar said. “Several directors have cited threats to their person, family or staff and agency safety as reasons for leaving the field. That accounts for the tragic loss of over a third of the state’s public health leaders and their decades of knowledge and experience. Any legislator who would take the opportunity to shame a public health official for speaking out about these facts needs to do some serious soul searching.”
Sunshine Law violations?
In addition to the Sunshine Law requests sent to the Health Department, at least 34 Sunshine Law complaints against the Health Department have been sent to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Attorney General press secretary Chris Nuelle said.
In December, the Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to the Health Department stating it had violated the Sunshine Law by holding meetings in a location too small for the public to attend, by holding meetings at inconvenient times for the public to attend, by refusing to hold a public comment period at meetings, by holding at least one closed meeting to vote and discuss changes to its bylaws, by failing to include sufficient specificity about agenda items and by failing to give copies of proposed ordinances and resolutions in advance of meetings.
Nuelle said the office would consider legal action against the Health Department if it does not comply with the Sunshine Law.
The Health Department denies violating the Sunshine Law.
Health Department attorney Christi Coleman said the agency had asked the Attorney General’s Office in summer 2021 to provide the Health Department board with Sunshine Law training but did not hear back until the December letter from the Attorney General’s Office.
After that, the board scheduled Sunshine Law training with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services for Feb. 24, but the training was postponed because of wintry weather. The board completed the training on March 24.
After the training, Vollmar said she still believes the department had not violated the Sunshine Law.
Vollmar said she and board chairman Dennis Diehl sent Sunshine Law requests to the Attorney General’s Office between Dec. 15 and Dec. 17 asking for 12 types of information, including communication about complaints; internal communications about the Health Department; communication sent to or received from Mary Elizabeth Coleman and the Thomas More Society about the pending lawsuit against the Health Department related to its COVID-19 mitigation efforts; and training materials on the Sunshine Law and what public entities had received Sunshine Law training.
On Monday, March 28, Vollmar said the lawsuit was ongoing, although a stay had been granted until the end of the state’s legislative session due to Mary Elizabeth Coleman’s schedule.
Vollmar said the Attorney General’s Office told her and Diehl it would take six weeks to get the information to them.
She also said she thinks that’s an unreasonable amount of time to wait for the information.
“I find it extremely hypocritical that the same elected official that is tasked with upholding the Sunshine Law does not feel compelled to follow it himself,” Vollmar said.
On March 28, Vollmar said both she and Diehl had received a lot of the documents they had requested, but still are reviewing the files. She wasn’t sure if they received everything they wanted.
“In some of mine, I’m not sure I got everything that I was supposed to receive,” Vollmar said.
Streamlining process
Vollmar and Christi Coleman said they have worked to streamline the process to fill the Sunshine Law requests the Health Department receives.
Coleman said when she was hired by the Health Department, the agency was spending a lot of time answering questions and trying to gather data to make new documents to answer peoples’ questions.
However, while the Sunshine Law allows for people to request documents, it does not require an entity to create a document for a request, Christi Coleman said.
“We have worked tirelessly to ensure that our residents have the information they need to make the decisions they feel are best for them,” Vollmar said. “Unfortunately, in the early days, we didn’t understand that we could set parameters around our work in order to maintain the priority of getting the urgent matters of our response completed. This resulted in the culmination of a lot of hours and agency expense that could have been better allocated to guiding our response efforts.”
Christi Coleman said when the Health Department receives a Sunshine Law request, Vollmer and Pinkley look at it and complete a response and then consult with her, which could take about half an hour of attorney time.
Redactions or exemptions can add to the amount of attorney time needed.
Vollmar said anyone who has questions should try calling and asking for it before filing a Sunshine Law request.
“Ask the question and you probably can get the same answers and the same information without having to go through that process,” she said.
For information, call 636-797-3737. To submit a Sunshine Law request, email it to cor@jeffcohealth.org.
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