FREE PRESS -- "There
are signs on the seventh floor of S
an Diego's City Hall that say 'authorized
employees only' that weren’t there two weeks ago," reports Eric Wolff for San Diego CityBeat. "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.