Just when I think I've seen all the weirdness Salem city officials are capable of, they surprise me with a fresh dose of absurdity.
On May 12, I submitted a public records request to the City of Salem. You can read it via this PDF file.
Download Public records request PDF
I wanted to learn who authorized changes to the "Reserve a City Facility or Park" web page on or around March 27, 2021, and also who made the actual edits to that web page. Likewise, I asked for the same information regarding changes to the web page on or around April 30, 2021.
The reason I made the public records request was to learn how it was that the March 27 version of that web page said reservations were required for outdoor events in city parks as of May 1, a change from the previous open use policy that didn't require reservations.
In the lead-up to the controversial May 1 gun rights rally at Riverfront Park where Proud Boys threatened people with expulsion if they didn't like their looks, Facebook posts noted that the City of Salem web page said the rally should have a permit. Which, it didn't have.
Then the web page changed on April 30, the day before the rally, to say that now reservations weren't required until May 31.
Inquiring minds (like mine) wanted to know how it was that the City of Salem web page said reservations were required as of May 1 for over a month (March 27 to April 30), then changed to May 31 just before the May 1 gun rally, which meant now the rally didn't need a permit.
City officials such as City Manager Steve Powers provided conflicting reasons for this.
First the May 1 reservation date supposedly was a typo. But I debunked that theory in "Typogate adds a twist to Proud Boys gun rally." Then, in response to a question from Councilor Andersen at a city council meeting, City Manager Powers said the web page was incorrect and poorly worded.
Well, that web page sat there for 34 days, saying reservations were required as of May 1. Kind of hard to believe that city staff would fail to notice the supposed error for that length of time, then burst into action on the day before the gun rally to change the required reservation date to May 31.
It seemed that it would be easy to tell me who authorized the March 27 and April 30 changes to the web page, and also who made the actual edits. This would help answer the question of whether the May 1 reservation date really was an error.
But on May 17 I got this message from city staff.
Specific search terms and email information (department and/or staff person) is needed for our IT staff to provide responsive documents as the current request is too broad.
Huh? Too broad? Actually my public records request was highly specific.
But what amused me the most was the instruction that, in order for the City of Salem to tell me who authorized and made two sets of edits to the web page, I'd have to tell them the email information of who authorized and made those edits.
Sure seems like someone at the Salem City Hall is a fan of Joseph Heller's World War II-based novel, Catch-22.
The catch in the title refers to a military concept that you couldn't fly dangerous missions if you were crazy, but if you asked to be relieved of the duty to fly on those missions because of your craziness, that showed you were rational, and thus not crazy. So, you had to keep on flying.
More generally, here's how a Catch-22 is described.
The Collins English Dictionary defines a catch-22 as follows: “If you describe a situation as a catch-22, you mean it is an impossible situation because you cannot do one thing until you do another thing, but you cannot do the second thing until you do the first thing.”
It is a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape due to mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. It’s also come to stand for frustrating bureaucratic logic or rules.
I wrote back to the City of Salem saying they needed to try harder, since it shouldn't be difficult to give me the information I requested, given that web pages don't change by themselves.
Here’s a rather obvious suggestion. Find out who maintains and changes that web page. Ask that person who authorized the changes described in (1) and (2) of my Public Records Request. Get records related to that authorization.
When the person who authorized the changes is known, seek records regarding other city staff who communicated with the authorizing person about making the changes on or about March 27, 2021 and April 30, 2021. This should show the “chain of command,” so to speak, regarding how those changes to the web page came about.
Further, I’ve made many Public Records Requests. This is the first time I’ve been asked to know the information I wanted in order to have the Public Records Request fulfilled.
The good news is, as I was writing this blog post I was emailed an $302.70 invoice to fulfill my public records request.
So it looks like city staff figured out that I didn't need to know what I sought to learn before I could be told what I want to know.
Now, I'm hoping they will figure out that I deserve to have that $302.70 waived or reduced, since I'd asked for a fee waiver given that my records request is for a public purpose, not a private one.
But since I'm not a "real" journalist, just a dedicated unpaid blogger, I've never had the City of Salem agree to my repeated requests for public records fee waivers.
Yet, hey, just thought of this. Maybe I should stop providing rational reasons for why my public record requests are in the public interest and do a Catch-22 thing.
I could tell city officials that if they deny my fee waiver, this shows that my records request was in the public interest, since them not wanting to have the information I requested easily made available to citizens shows that the City of Salem has something to hide, which means it is in the public interest to have it known.
Bingo! Fee waiver has to be granted. (At least if Joseph Heller was in charge of deciding them.)