Small towns across state deal with FOIA requests

Administrative Assistant Jody Stein reviews a FOIA request in the City of Dover’s Clerks Office on Thursday morning. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

Administrative Assistant Jody Stein reviews a FOIA request in the City of Dover’s Clerks Office on Thursday morning. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

DOVER — When it comes to government transparency, size doesn’t matter.

Small towns or big cities, it makes no difference — all Delaware municipal governments must provide requested information in a timely manner and at a fair cost. They are mandated to do so under the Delaware Freedom of Information Act.

But just because they are required to do so, it doesn’t mean they see many requests.

Take Hartly, for example.

Hartly Town Commissioner and Clerk Suzanne Morris recently researched meeting minutes back into the 1990s. She found no mention of a FOIA request.

“I can tell you that to the best of my knowledge Hartly has never received a FOIA request,” she said,

Hartly, Delaware’s smallest incorporated town with 74 residents according to the 2010 federal census, has a website link for FOIA matters, which Delaware Code requires.

It appears to never have been used.

The two-square mile town in western Kent County is not alone. Some towns rarely receive a FOIA request, based on a recent survey.

“If we were to receive a FOIA request we would comply to the best of our ability,” Ms. Morris said. “We do not have the records that a larger town or city may have.”

Under the law not all information is available for public dissemination. However, a FOIA coordinator within each public body must determine a response.

In Felton, Town Manager Rebecca Greene is tasked with addressing FOIA requests.

“We average one every couple of years,” she said.

Addressing a complaint

According to Delaware Coalition for Open Government records, Little Creek handled just one FOIA request since at least 1995.

Little Creek became embroiled in a long-running quest to resolve a citizen’s complaint that providing public records at a town secretary’s home was inadequate.

The matter was taken to the Delaware Department of Justice, which concluded on May 9 that while the town violated FOIA in accessibility requirements, no corrective action was needed since the citizen eventually received the information.

Nonetheless, the sequence caused the town to examine its procedures and establish a response system through certified mail within 10 days of receiving a request.

There are generally about 10 FOIA requests a year in Harrington, typically coming from email or a form completed on the town website, according to Clerk of Council Kelly Blanchies. A paper form request is also available.

“The subject matter varies greatly from property information to financial records to audio recordings of meetings,” she said.

In her 19 years with the Smyrna Planning and Zoning Department, planner Valerie Heritage sounds ready for anything as a FOIA coordinator.

“Some requests are able to be answered very quickly, she said. “I have had some that have been very involved and taken over a week to obtain the necessary information.”

Ms. Heritage said no requests are received some months.

“And then there are times when I get four or five in one day,” she said.

Four requests have arrived to Smyrna in July, Ms. Heritage said, and 17 for the year so far.

Essential to transparency

Milford’s City Clerk Terri Hudson says FOIA is important.

“Government entities/officials operating behind closed door are much more prone to corruption and undue influence because there is no public oversight,” she said.

“Absence of transparency reduces public trust in government, its processes, decisions, and officials.”

FOIA is the key element in monitoring public entities, Ms. Hudson said.

“The purpose is to allow our citizens to observe the process and see how our elected officials get from point A to point B in making decisions.

“Those conversations need to take place in a public setting with a public record of how our public officials made decisions.”

Ms. Hudson estimates about 99 percent of requests are filled, the few others denied for not meeting FOIA requirements.

When requests, however infrequent, arrive, Felton’s Ms. Greene said they’re typically for budget or road information.

Following state guidelines, Felton once charged a citizen a fee to copy hundreds of pages.

Typically, though, the town doesn’t charge its citizens, Ms. Greene said.

In Felton, the chief of police or town manager processes the request. The process normally takes about 30 minutes, according to Ms. Greene.

“We have had one large project that took a couple of hours.”

She said one time a request for police investigation paperwork was denied, following state guidelines.

Request and response

Typically, the FOIA process is a smooth one in Felton, according to Ms. Greene.

“We respond within seven business days,” she said. “There have been no issues with the citizens.”

Town representatives are trained in FOIA issues, Ms. Greene said, and have specific state guidelines as a reference.

“When we are unclear about providing information we check with our attorney,” she said.

Noting that his town has an approximate population of 230, Magnolia Mayor James Frazier said FOIA requests are rare — three have been received in the past two years:

• A procurement firm in Florida requested all of Magnolia’s purchasing records for the past six years, including vendor information and contacts.
• A woman asked for revenue and expenditure reports for the last five years.

• A subcontractor for Verizon working on a on a cellphone booster installation on Magnolia’s water tower needed historical information on it for an environmental assessment report.

In Dover, the city clerk’s office handles FOIA inquiries.

“We have received no significant complaints regarding processing time,” according to administrative assistant Jody Stein.

“Requesters are generally patient. Some request expedited responses, and staff tries to accommodate whenever possible.”

As of Tuesday, the city of Dover had received 105 requests this year; in 2015 there were 182 requests. The city keeps a detailed database of all inquiries, including name and contact information of the person or company requesting, subject matter, when received, answered and finalized, among other data.

Milford received roughly 50 requests in 2015, with the town waiving all processing fees “99 percent of the time except if it is a voluminous request,” Ms. Hudson said.

A patient public

The most frequently requested information in Milford includes council approvals, minutes, bid/project information, job posting information, property owners’ information, tax information, among others.

Ms. Hudson said most of the public is generally patient with the processing time.

“We try to respond immediately, whether or not the information is available,” she said.

“If there are records we need to retrieve from multiple departments, for example, our response is immediate with an explanation that we are working on the request and will provide the records once they can be gathered. We receive many positive comments about our timely responses.”

With an average of just under one request a week last year, Ms. Hudson said the time spent on addressing them is manageable.

“Most of our responses are within a couple days,” she said.

Citizens can take complaints to the Attorney General’s Office, which decides whether a FOIA violation claim is valid.

The office publishes a FOIA manual every two years, which is sent electronically to coordinators and is posted through a portal at attorneygeneral.delaware.gov/.

Also, the Attorney General’s Office holds an annual training seminar for FOIA coordinators that is open to the public and requires notice beforehand.

Ms. Heritage said she attends as many classes as possible regarding FOIA, and Smyrna hosted a deputy attorney general’s presentation in January 2015. Video of the presentation is posted at smyrna.delaware.gov through the Video on Demand link.

The fees involved

While public bodies can charge for FOIA requests to defray costs of compliance, the manual states, “it places limits on the amounts that may be charged, the circumstances under which they may be charged and the manner in which they may be charged.”

Public bodies cannot charge for the first 20 standard size pages that are photocopied in black and white; anything more costs 10 cents, and 20 cents for a double sided pages. Costs for oversized and/or color copies/printouts range from $1 to $3 depending on the page shape.

If a public body chooses, time taken to process the request is billed on the quarter hour, with the hourly pay grade of the lowest-paid employee capable of performing the service.

Estimated and itemized request costs must be provided by a public body before receipt of information, allowing for a decision to revise, narrow or abandon the request. In some cases, advance payment may be required before a service is performed.

To cut costs, Smyrna’s Ms. Heritage provides about 99 percent of information electronically, and there’s no charge if it’s a quick response with little research required.

FOIA request forms are online: delaware.gov/forms/foia_request_form.pdf.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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