• Town Of Oxford Weaponizes PIA Request Fees

    February 19, 2024
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    Public Information Act requests in the small town can run from $100 to $7000 up front!

    It was evident at a recent town meeting in Oxford, Maryland that the town does not like to respond to Public Information Act requests. A resident of the town complained about the recent increase in the number of Public Information Requests filed with the town. From the Star Democrat:

    At the beginning of public comment, resident Deborah Pulzone read a letter addressed to the Commissioners of Oxford and the town’s citizens. In her letter, Pulzone said that for 2021 and 2022, there was only one Maryland Public Information Act filed. In contrast, from Jan. 1, 2023 to Jan. 30 of this year, Pulzone said 30 PIAs were filed.

    “It is obvious that these PIAs have become weaponized,” she said. “It appears they were made for the sole purpose of keeping our town employees preoccupied with busy paperwork, thereby making it extremely difficult to function in a productive and cost-effective manner.”

    Based on her interaction with appointed Commissioner Botkin prior to the meeting, Pulzone's comments seem to have been sanctioned and/or encouraged by a town commissioner.

    She complained that citizens who asked questions about town government practices were disrupting and dividing the town. She talked about causing chaos, harassing town employees, and inspiring lower morale among the staff. She called people who filed PIA's "disrespectful" toward the citizens of the town and the employees. She complained that there were citizens making allegations of financial wrongdoing and unethical hiring practices without any evidence. She was clearly confused as to why 2023 had so many PIA requests.

    She missed the point of the Public Information Act.

    She's right about one thing. PIA's are being weaponized. The fees to file them are being weaponized by the town government AGAINST citizens. There's a reason there was an increase of these filings in 2023.

    2023 was the year that the illusion of peace, ethics and honesty was peeled away from Oxford's government. Events during that year included a suspicious sudden retirement of a long time Police Chief, uncovering of flawed hiring practices including nepotism and hires made without posting positions, and an appointment of the loser of a town Commissioner election into office prior to the swearing in of the winner of the same election in order to escape a new requirement to the town charter. There was the discovery of financial auditor concerns that were not addressed over the past seven years as well as salaries of certain town employees that seemed excessive. All these events occurred in 2023, thus the increase.

    Apparently, Ms. Pulzone was either unaware of or didn't choose to acknowledge that fact.

    In 2023, citizens discovered there were things going on in town government that they did know about or approve of. When they asked questions, town administrators and commissioners hid behind their lawyer and refused to answer. Out of frustration and a desire for the truth, people filed public information act requests which is their right under Maryland Law.

    Here is a link to the State's PIA Manual:

    PIA Manual (marylandattorneygeneral.gov)

    The elite circle of power in Oxford didn't like that at all.

    So, they came up with a way to squash that effort immediately. If the town charged high enough fees for certain PIA requests, residents would not be able to afford the cost, word would get around and the PIA requests would cease.

    There are several examples.

    NOTE: We have receipts for all the following examples of the town demanding unreasonable payment for answers to Public Information Act requests. We have hidden the names of those who sent us the examples to prevent retribution against these citizens from the town.

    One resident, when asking about personnel information and about the town's participation a FEMA program was told by the town's attorney that it would cost $1,000 for the town to respond. The request about personnel would not have a charge since the first two hours of a PIA request must be free. However, the second request prompted the town lawyer to quote fees covering seven hours of staff time to make copies of a document that can easily be printed off a computer. The attorney also stated that they would have to redact the document before sending it to the requestor. The fee had to be paid up front.

    We got an electronic copy of the lawyer's letter and the document from FEMA that was requested by the resident. In order to see how much time it would take to provide the person with the information, we downloaded it electronically, printed it, and reviewed it for redactions. We're going to see if we can determine the time it takes to do all that.

    First, the document is electronic. According to the lawyer's email, however, the document was a PDF. It supposedly took the town office extra time to change the document from a PDF file on a computer to a printed page. So, let's allow that task twenty minutes (which is ridiculous). Then, it took us ten minutes (on a slow home printer) and twenty-six sheets of paper to print (copy) the document. At .25 a copy, that would total $6.50. Total time for the highest paid employee in the town office to download, print and copy that information would be around $87 an hour, so $43.50 for the employee time IF copying was done by the Town Manager.

    There were five signatures redacted in the document that the lawyer had to find and redact, so if it took two minutes for the lawyer to find and white out each signature, that's ten minutes. There were no other redactions. The rest of the time would be the letters written from the lawyer to the filer. I know lawyers are expensive, but even if we allow 1 hour at the average rate per hour of municipal lawyers in Maryland, that tops out of $300 an hour plus the additional ten minutes for redactions. With 30 minutes to find and "copy" the document and an hour and ten minutes for the lawyer to review the document and redact five signatures, the total task time came to one hour and forty minutes, a far cry from the seven hours stated.

    At the most, the cost would be approximately $380.00 a far cry from the $1,000 quoted. If the town lawyer had allowed the first two hours free for the request, it would have cost much less. As we go to press, we are not sure what the person was ultimately charged for the information. Even if it was much less, it seems the initial estimate was a way to get them to back off.

    By the way, the person just wanted to understand the FEMA document so they could be prepared for an upcoming town meeting where the program would be discussed. I guess the town doesn't want citizens to be educated on programs that could potentially be discussed in meetings and which could have drastic effects for the residents.

    Another citizen asked for six months of financial records including invoices and checks. He/she was told his/her credit card would immediately have a hold on it of $5000 to $7000 as the fee for that request. Again, considering that we are in a small town of 650 people, it strains the imagination that there would be enough time spent on this request to exceed the first two hours for free rule so much that it would cost this much. Was the rest of the fee because of lawyer's time to write letters and redact signatures? Again, if we allow the lawyer's fee to write the letter and employee work time to find and copy all of the documents, we are nowhere NEAR $5000, much less $7000. Again, was this just a way to get the request to go away? If so, something is seriously wrong.

    There are other residents who have made PIA requests that were only $96 or free. It's hard to tell why some requests are cheap and some are excessive. It's always left up to the discretion of the town.

    Two excerpts from the state PIA manual clarify how fees may be charged:

    Under GP § 4-206, an official custodian may charge reasonable fees for the
    search and preparation of records for inspection and copying.

    Fees may not be charged, however, for the first two hours
    of search and preparation time.

    The word "reasonable" is important here. The responses to the above requests are certainly not reasonable.

    Are all Public Information Act requests in Oxford threatened with the same excessive fees? Or is that treatment only for those who the town deems as "having a bad attitude" or " disruptive?" At a recent meeting, a town commissioner told me that "maybe the reason you aren't getting answers is your attitude." I didn't realize that "attitude" was a prerequisite for a citizen to get public information from a public employee or entity. And, by the way, my attitude is just fine.

    Either way, the purpose of the citizen tirade at the meeting seemed to be an attempt to shame and intimidate those who merely sought the truth from their town government and were not given answers via normal channels. What's next, the doxxing of those residents?

    Seems like the town is weaponizing the right of a citizen to file PIA's, not the residents. The town has a distinct advantage because they can claim they need to charge fees any way they want.

    There is a way that a citizen CAN complain if the fees are excessive or the requests take too long:

    To file a complaint, you must first have attempted to resolve your dispute through the Public Access Ombudsman. If, after attempting to resolve your dispute through the Ombudsman, you have received a final determination stating that the dispute is unresolved or only partially resolved, you may file a complaint with the Board. You must file your complaint within 30 days after receiving the Ombudsman's final determination. In addition, your complaint must be signed.

    PIA Reference (marylandattorneygeneral.gov)

    The problem is that the Ombudsman process is lengthy and cumbersome. By the time a citizen files a complaint and gets an answer, the need or importance of the request could be nullified.

    The town and certain citizens seem to have forgotten the point of the PIA system. It was created to give all citizens, rich, poor, favored by the government or not, the same access to information that is not readily available publicly. It allows taxpayers to have working knowledge of the decisions made and actions taken by the people who are elected by them and those who work for the public. It gives the average person a look inside the processes of government even when the government doesn't want them to. Sometimes, the PIA system can assure that governments and public employees follow the ethics, policies, laws and procedures they should follow when conducting town business.

    It's about transparency and accountability.

    In her letter, Pulzone mentioned that these requests were costing the citizens of Oxford money and were chasing employees away.* It's not necessarily true, but even if it was, there is an easy solution to that.

    All the town has to do is answer the questions of the citizens and taxpayers of the town truthfully and completely when they are asked. Follow the rules, policies, and procedures set forth by the town in its charter and code. Treat the taxpayer as if you work for and represent them, because you do, whether you like them or not. Promote trust instead of destroying it.

    If the town government/office does that, it's easy. Problem solved.

    *SPECIAL NOTES: Based on personal conversations, I can say that the argument that morale of the employees of the town is being destroyed by these requests is a red herring. In fact, employees of the town confidentially tell us that there are other factors causing low morale and turnover and that they don't mind the questions. The questions aren't about them and how they do their jobs. The questions are about the administration and governance of the town. Much of the cause for low morale stems from the top of the pyramid in town government.

    SURROUNDING COUNTY/TOWN OFFICES: We canvassed other town and county offices across the area to see if these fees were unreasonable. To say that most of the people we talked to were shocked about the high fees Oxford asked for is an understatement. As one official replied, "Those fees are ridiculous." Another said, "No office likes PIA requests, but we are legally bound to respond to them. It is the right of the citizens. Those fees are crazy."

    As usual, it seems that Oxford is operating on a completely different set of rules.

    For more background on this story click this link:

    Emotions Run High At Oxford Meeting; Town Manager Announces Her Retirement - Easton Gazette

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    Author

    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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