Officials say they are overwhelmed by requests
NASHUA — “To us, it seems like the intention is to disable, to retaliate, to punish the city — not to help anything. What is this helping exactly?”
These are the comments of Mayor Jim Donchess regarding the many right-to-know requests filed by Berkeley Street resident Laurie Ortolano in recent months. Officials said Ortolano and fellow Assessing Department critic Laura Colquhoun have requested more than 34,000 documents since September.
It is the city’s to respond to right-to-know requests, but Donchess, Administrative Services Director Kim Kleiner, Administrative Assistant Karina Ochoa and Assessing Administration Supervisor Louise Brown believe they are being overwhelmed as a means of retaliation. Tuesday, they sat down with The Telegraph to discuss their efforts to improve transparency, as well as give their opinion that Ortolano and Colquhoun are hindering their ability to perform their jobs.
Prior to last week, the city had received more than 100 emails with right-to-know requests from either Ortolano, her attorney Robert Fojo, or from Colquhoun, requesting about 3,500 documents.
However, the number of documents skyrocketed on Aug. 13 when Ortolano requested information regarding the work Massachusetts-based KRT Appraisal performed during the last property revaluation. City leaders said this request alone amounts to 31,000 documents.
“We estimate staff time, this has taken at least $100,000 of staff time to respond to the ones we have responded to so far,” Donchess said. “There are mountains yet to respond to.”
With the assessing department and other city officials dealing with so many documents, Donchess said it has slowed down progress on other projects.
“There are other projects that we want to work on. We’re trying to work on the city website; we’re trying to improve purchasing procedures,” Donchess said. “We’re trying to make various improvements in the assessing functions, and all of these different projects that benefit many citizens of Nashua get slowed down significantly as a result of all of the time that is spent on the right-to-know requests.”
As the city gears up to complete a full measure and list for the first time since 1991, Donchess said many contractors who are well aware of the issues of dealing with Ortolano will want to charge the city much more money to take the job.
“Now we’re hearing that the bids for that major project are going to be significantly higher because the assessing firms realize that they’re going to have put up with a lot of this themselves,” Donchess said. “It’s going to be large, and we’re not talking $100,000. We’re talking a lot more than that.”
The other major cost the city is considering, is hiring an attorney to deal specifically with the right-to-know requests filed by Ortolano and her associates.
“When we have to consider hiring a $100,000 lawyer to respond to right-to-knows after we’ve produced tens of thousands of documents, I’d say that’s out of hand,” Donchess said. “I think that other residents of the city are being short-changed in terms of the services we are able to provide and in terms of the cost that we are incurring.”
Of The Story
Ortolano said she is not trying to make excessive work for the departments at City Hall. She said her requests and — $8,000 private investigation of city employee Greg Turgiss — have served a purpose: To provide transparency in the assessing department.
“All of the data has led to the opening of quite a few investigations and it served a purpose. It was never intended to create excessive work for the city,” Ortolano said on Tuesday. “The city will not allow the public to communicate on the assessing issues. The only way to verify the data is through the right-to-know requests.”
Ortolano also said that while the city has been providing her information, at times it is much more than she has requested.
“The city told me that the second views by KRT on properties totaled a couple hundred. I did a right-to-know on the number of views and I received 1,252 pages,” she said.
Ortolano also said the city sent her 400 pages when she only needed one page of the assessing office’s policy and procedures manual.
“I requested to review the policy and procedures manual at City Hall. I wanted to check on one document in the manual. I did not fill out an RTK,” she said. “They scanned and sent me 403 pages of the manual and sent it to me when all I wanted to do was see a page.”
“They have done this repeatedly to paint a picture that we are asking for too much, but they’re not willing to speak with us,” Ortolano added.
While Ortolano said the number released by the city is inflated by the KRT request equaling a total of 31,000 documents, she confirmed she made the request after the recent Board of Tax and Land Appeals raised concerns regarding whether or the company followed the contract during the revaluation.
“The 31,000 pages, the bulk of this view is looking at KRT’s supporting data to do the mass appraisal,” she said. “That’s a unique situation and the city’s just got to deal with it. They have all the information.”
Both Kleiner and Donchess said a move toward transparency comes in the form of members of the community easily having access to information about Board of Assessors meetings, which are now shown live and have minutes posted on the city website.
“We’re in the middle of trying to upgrade the software; that’s a huge project,” Kleiner said. “To be doing this (right-to-know responses) and that, and building permits and general spring reviews, and inspections, and reviewing sales …”
“There is no way with the staff that we have that we can get all these projects and our regular work done, with the right-to-know requests,” Kleiner added.