Friday, June 27, 2008

FOIA Friday - May 27, 2008

I missed my FOIA Friday last week as we celebrated the wedding of Cindy and Patrick. It was a very good reason to miss a FOIA post, but I'm back this week with a story about a friend who just wanted something simple.

My friend Twila sent an email to Commissioner Ben Konop to request a listing of all boards and commissions, the members, their terms and mission statements. As she stated in her email, she knew she was not required to provide a reason for the request, but she did so anyway. She chose Comm. Konop, as she explained, because of his "attempt to bring honest and open government to Toledo." She sent this email on June 11 and followed up with his assistant on the 13th to make sure he had gotten the email. He had.

On June 20, she sent a follow-up email because she hadn't heard anything at all in terms of a response. She even included this statement, which is so correct:
"Please respond with either the information or the reason why the information can not be provided, because silence is just not the appropriate answer."

What Twila didn't know is that the County Commissioners have a book that lists all the boards and commissions to which they appoint members. That book, a large three-ring binder, includes the names and addresses of all appointees, their terms, their 'category' if they represent a particular group or fulfill a particular legal requirement, and the pertinent Ohio Revised Code reference for the board or commission. If there are specific requirements for the board, those requirements are listed in the book as well.

It's a pretty thick book, but it's easy to go through. It should have only taken a few minutes to send a reply email that the book was available for inspection in the Commissioner's Office.

Twila also didn't have the County's public records policy when she sent the email, but she does now. That policy says that replies need to be prompt - and I can't help but believe that two weeks is less than prompt.

I know all this because she copied me on her public records request (which is a public record in and of itself), and I gave her some advice on how to proceed. I told her that if she's just interested in the information, she could contact the specific individual who was (and, I believe, still is) in charge of keeping the book current and make arrangements to view the information. If she wants to teach elected officials a lesson, she could file the mandamus action in Common Pleas Court, asking the court to compel the production of the data.

I also told her about Ohio's special little clause that allows individuals to be compensated for the lack of timely response to public records requests. Under Ohio law, individuals can get $100 a day - it's not a penalty, but an 'incentive' for elected officials to respond appropriately. However, individuals are only eligible for this fee if they have hand-delivered their written request or sent it via certified mail, return receipt requested - in order to prove that the request was actually received on a particular date to start the tolling of the days.

I haven't yet heard what Twila plans to do, but knowing the tenacity of my friend, heaven help anyone who stands in her way of accessing public information. And shame on any elected official who doesn't promptly respond to a request for information!

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