• Attack On Transparency: The Slow Walking Of Freedom Of Information/Public Information Act Requests

    October 22, 2023
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    The Town of Oxford takes it time getting information to citizens.

    In a country founded on the participation of citizens in government, it's sad that people need to file written, legal requests to uncover certain information from its public "servants." Those in government will say that there are some things that citizens shouldn't know such as classified defense information and details about legal investigations, etc.

    As the daughter of a military officer who worked in a section of the Pentagon that no one could set foot in without top security clearance, I suppose I understand some of it. After all, we don't want our enemies to know all of our defensive tactics, locations, procedures, etc.

    What I don't get is when towns, counties, cities, state and local government agencies decide that information they have regarding personnel, legal issues, etc. are to be hidden from their constituents. For example, why would a town hide how a new police chief was hired? Why would a county hide the bids and costs of certain capital projects? Why would school systems hide purchases, in-service contracts, and classroom lessons? Why would local commissioners want to discuss vital issues outside the view of citizens?

    The Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966, was supposed to prevent most of that at the Federal Level. The push for transparency began in 1955 when John Moss, a Democrat from Sacramento, California, began advocating for government transparency during the Cold War. President Eisenhower fired several thousand government employees based on allegations that they were Communists. The Eisenhower Administration refused to release any information regarding those firings.

    The act didn't pass until 1966. President Lyndon Johnson didn't like the law and didn't want to sign it, so much so that he didn't do a public signing. He actually signed the Freedom of Information Act out of the public view. Ironic.

    The records of all executive branch agencies and departments are subject to the FOIA, while the law doesn’t apply to those of Congress, the federal courts, the president and his immediate staff and the vice president. However, the Presidential Records Act of 1978 allows people the right to access Presidential records five to 12 years after the President leaves office.

    The federal Freedom of Information Act does NOT apply to State and local governments. Most states, however, have their own laws. In Maryland it is called the Public Information Act. The PIA covers virtually all public agencies or officials in the State. It includes all branches of State government—legislative, judicial, and executive. It covers all public documents, written and electronic. Public records are any records that are made or received by a covered public agency in connection with the transaction of public business. There are some nuances in what is covered and what is exempted and can be redacted.

    The bottom line is that citizens should be able to see any or all records having to do with public business since taxpayer dollars pay for that business. Seems simple, huh?

    Far from it.

    The process of filing a Public Information Act request, on its own, is daunting. Leave it to the government to set up something so complex that it takes a 277-page booklet to explain. Don't do the process correctly and your PIA request will come back to you empty or at the very least, not responsive to the questions you have.

    Public agencies will return the request with the information almost completely redacted. Or they will charge the filer hundreds of dollars for the request. Or they will tell you that your request wasn't " specific enough."

    In our small town, a PIA request comes in and some bureaucrat tells the filer, " We have the documents, just not enough people working to copy the documents, "or "the copier is broken," or " we don't have enough paper." Currently, PIA's filed in February and March have yet to be answered. Seems as though the town office doesn't want to respond and let citizens know the truth. From the Maryland PIA Law:

    "the custodian must produce the record “immediately” after receipt of the written request. An additional reasonable period “not to exceed 30days” is available only where the additional period of time is required to retrieve the records and assess their status under the PIA. A custodian should not, however, wait the full 30 days to allow or deny access to a record if that amount of time is not needed
    to respond."

    I'm no math major, but February or March till now is more than thirty days. Again, why the delay?

    Maybe these documents, like the recently found financial policy, hidden in a secret underground bunker beneath the Town Park, only to be brought forward when convenient for the Town Office.

    Perhaps it's the attitude of the Town Commissioners of Oxford. In a recent work session Thursday, October 19 regarding the development and possible creation of a Financial Advisory Committee, Commissioner Katrina Greer shared a plan for this Committee so that citizens of the town could review and discuss the plan along with the Commissioners. Greer had received many suggestions from town constituents regarding the authority and scope of such a committee. The purpose of the committee would be to advise the Commissioners on the best way to manage town funds beyond the decision making of one bureaucrat. The Committee would only ADVISE.

    This apparently troubled Costigan and Delean Botkin, who seemingly prefer letting the town lawyer and the town manager decide which committees the town will have, who will be on those committees, what the committees will do, etc. That way, Commissioners can come to meetings, rubber stamp statements, and go home to their sofas without having to make a single important decision.

    Commissioner Costigan and appointed member Delean-Botkin were very concerned that a Financial Advisory Committee would have "access to town information." Delean Botkin stated that if a committee needed information they should get it via a Maryland Public Information Act request, so she didn't see why they (or any citizen) should have access to it. Apparently, Ms. Delean Botkin doesn't know how long it takes to pry public information out of the Oxford Town Office's tight fist. Or maybe she does.

    More often than not, people in public office want to hide more information than they disclose. Meanwhile, the people of this country, state, county and town are fighting back.

    Someone should make sure the Town Commissioners and Office of the Town of Oxford get that memo. Don't worry, we'll keep reminding them.

    Next question: Where is the recently developed hiring policy draft created by the Ad hoc committee this summer?

    Link to the Maryland Public Information Act guide:

    PIA Manual (marylandattorneygeneral.gov)

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    Jan Greenhawk

    Jan Greenhawk is a former teacher and school administrator for over thirty years. She has two grown children and lives with her husband in Maryland. She also spent over twenty-five years coaching/judging gymnastics and coaching women’s softball.
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