Wednesday, July 17, 2024

SCN Editorial

Why Freedom of Information requests are so important

In order for government to truly be run by the people, the people must know what the government is doing.
That basic premise is so vital to democracy that there are state and federal laws that give citizens legal access to almost all public documents and records.
In Montana, Article 2, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution and Title 2, Chapter 6 of the Montana Code Annotated Right to Know states that “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
At the federal level, the law that ensures the same kind of public access is called the Freedom of Information Act — also known as a FOIA. This applies to every agency, department, regulatory commission, government-controlled corporation and “other establishment” in the federal government’s executive branch.
Most often, it is attorneys and journalists who use these public access laws, but any citizen can file a request for documents/records.
In August, a local resident hired an attorney to submit a formal request under the Montana open meetings/public law, seeking all county financial records relating to money and time spent on the old hospital, the West Annex and the Meadowlark Assisted Living Facility since 2012.
The purpose of the request is to see if the Stillwater County Commissioners have put more taxpayer money than they have acknowledged into the almost 4-year project of finding a solution to the aging and over-crowded courthouse.
Under state law, once a request is made, an agency must “respond in a timely manner and must make the record available for examination and copying or provide an estimate of the time and charges for accessing the information if it cannot be ‘readily identified and gathered’.”
In the case at hand, the citizen’s request was made at the end of August. At a Sept. 6 meeting, Commissioner Mark Crago broached the subject, asking about the status of the request, while expressing his belief that the county needed to know for itself exactly how much money, time and personnel hours have been spent and what was done with property left in the old hospital, etc.
Commissioner Maureen Davey’s response was as follows:
“Before we spend any of our time, we need to understand what gets charged because they get charged for this. And part of it is our time,” said Davey.
Davey also said it was the first time the county had received such a records request and they needed some advice, mentioning an upcoming meeting with Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde.
According to Rohde, that conversation did not take place.
However, Rohde did not remain idle.
Knowing the law and the possible financial ramifications for the county if such requests are not handled in a timely manner, Rohde began the task of having all county claims from the time sought brought to her office so she could begin fulfilling the request — on the behalf of the county.
Twenty-two boxes of claims in all.
Working in cooperation with the citizen and his attorney, Rohde and the two men were making progress through the stacks of boxes and in doing so, complying with state law.
The process was moving along when the commissioners returned from a conference and questioned Rohde about her actions. Rohde explained what she had done and why and a meeting was scheduled for the following Monday to talk about it.
The morning of that meeting, Commissioner Davey retrieved the boxes of claims from Rohde’s office at 7:30 a.m. Davey’s reasons for retrieving the boxes were several and included the following:
•She wasn’t sure why the boxes were at Rohde’s office.
•The documents were official county records that should have been at the courthouse.
•The public would not be able to view the records if they were at Rohde’s office.
•Three years worth of records were needed for audit purposes.
•She felt something secretive was going on.
•She believed a conversation should have occurred between Rohde and the commissioners prior to the boxes being moved.
•And finally, the commissioners have jurisdiction over all county records.
Because the commissioners were away when she began her work, Rohde consulted county Finance Specialist Joe Morse about whether it would be ok to take them to her office.
Nothing secretive there.
In addition, Rohde’s office is considered to be a county building. The the documents that Davey said would not be available to the public if they were at Rohde’s office are normally kept in storage, near the courthouse.
In the end, a compromise was reached in which Rohde was allowed to keep claims for one year at a time at her office. She, the resident and the resident’s attorney, have resumed work on the records request.
It was work that should not have been halted. Especially considering the controversial nature of the topic at hand.