Apple Valley official claims some residents bought by Liberty (February 10, 2016)

Vocal opponents to water system takeover attempt deny allegation

APPLE VALLEY — A top town official is accusing Apple Valley’s water supplier of paying off six residents to inundate town staff with Public Records Act requests, a charge that threatens to escalate tensions amid the town’s takeover attempt of Liberty Utilities, Apple Valley — formerly Apple Valley Ranchos.

Assistant Town Manager Marc Puckett provided a copy of the requests during the Jan. 26 Town Council meeting.

What we’ve seen happen, Puckett said by phone, is (Liberty Utilities, Apple Valley) has hired at least six shills through Passantino Andersen (a public relations firm). Those six shills have submitted the majority of those 73 public records requests.

Since 2011, acquisition- and water-related public records requests have cost the town $231,347 and resulted in the town providing more than 237,000 documents, according to Puckett.

Puckett’s claim follows remarks made by Mayor Barb Stanton last August — after Puckett’s first transparency presentation — during which she commented on the requests that then totaled 60.

As I look at this list of names, they’re pretty much the same people over and over asking for all of these records, Stanton said. And I just wonder. I mean boxes and boxes and boxes. It just causes you to pause for a moment to see the necessity of that — although they certainly have the right to that information — but it is eye-opening.

The town has yet to provide further comment on Puckett’s statement, and it remains unclear whether Puckett believes the requests are an effort to hinder the town’s acquisition attempts.

Meanwhile, during a Jan. 29 conference call that included Liberty’s Manager of Financial Services Eric Larsen, General Manager Tony Penna said there’s no legitimacy to Puckett’s claim.

That’s not who we are, Penna said. We don’t do that … We have a contract through Passantino Andersen, and they have no authorization to hire any citizen of Apple Valley to speak on our behalf.

Larsen added that the number of requests simply shows concern among citizens who are disgusted by what the town is doing.

If a citizen comes forward and asks for records, Larsen said, and the government is outraged that people would execute their right … I find that very disturbing.

Penna later sent a written statement via email.

We didn’t start this long, divisive, and costly endeavor, the statement read, but we have a right and responsibility to protect our business. It’s our right as a taxpayer to understand what the town is doing. We have the right to use the legal means available to get the answers when they are not readily available.

The Daily Press reached out to Passantino Andersen for comment, but spokesman Randy Terrell responded with a further comment from Penna.

Liberty Utilities is not paying residents of the Town to file public records requests, Penna said.

A review of the requests showed that residents David Mueller, Al Rice and Leane Lee have made the majority; Mueller accounted for more than one-third of the 73 requests submitted, and he denied being paid for his efforts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have met with Randy Terrell before, Mueller said on Tuesday, but I’m not on payroll, and none of the other people are either to my knowledge … The law says the people and the press have a right to see the documents.

Like Mueller, Rice said he has no financial ties to Liberty Utilities, Apple Valley, and Lee said she told Puckett, How dare he suggest such a thing when similar comments were made at a separate Council meeting.

I’m really a neutral party to all this, Rice said. I’m not paid by (Liberty). I wouldn’t go to work for them. I take my concerned-citizen status very seriously.

In addition, all three separately stated that not all their requests are related to the town’s attempted acquisition of Liberty, despite Puckett’s claim; Lee said only two of the 12 requests she made during a six-month period in 2015 could be related to Liberty.

She then detailed one of her reviews of public records.

Al (Rice) came to assist me, and Marc Puckett refused to allow Al’s assistance, and I injured my shoulder trying to pull down and go through the heavy boxes, Lee said via email. They did nothing more than take file folders out of drawers and put (them) into boxes in no order. I was not allowed to actually remove any document from a folder to examine, and told I was not allowed to remove or replace any folder from the boxes, it had to be done by staff, while two staff people stood over and watched me, and all with a time limit.

Rice also alleged that during his last review of public records Puckett told him, I hope that you’re getting paid by (Liberty) very well for the work you’re doing.

That was the last conversation he said he had with Puckett outside of a brief interaction at a subsequent council meeting.

Source: Matthew Cabe, Daily Press