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7/16/2010
Open-records policy puts Coons on hot seat. It is unconscionable that council members should be required to file FOIA. News Journal

Delaware government: Open-records policy puts Coons on hot seat
BY CHAD LIVENGOOD • THE NEWS JOURNAL • JULY 16, 2010 

 
Councilman Bob Weiner says he wanted the records to educate his constituents. 

New Castle County Executive Chris Coons is facing political criticism for his administration's new policy that requires council members to file formal records requests and pay for more than 20 copies of public documents.

"It is unconscionable that council members should be required to file FOIA requests to get basic information about the government they are elected to oversee," New Castle County Republican Party vice chairman Joe Oddo said in a statement about Coons, a Democrat. "What, exactly, is county government hiding?"

The Coons administration developed the temporary Freedom of Information  Act policy after Republican Councilman Bob Weiner obtained multiple copies of hundreds of pages of documents, racking up an estimated $1,210 bill.

"This particular incident is making a mountain out of a molehill," Coons said Thursday. "This was a minor dust-up between a department of county government and a member of council who was requesting many documents."

Coons said his administration implemented the policy to track what Weiner was requesting and ensure they had fulfilled his requests.

The new FOIA policy will remain in place while the administration and council's attorneys review their open-records policies, county attorney Gregg Wilson said Tuesday.

County officials believe Weiner turned over the documents to Citizens for Responsible Growth, a civic group that's considering suing the county for its handling of land-use applications on two proposed development projects at Greenville  Center and Barley Mill Plaza. Weiner has declined to say publicly what he did with the records.

But Weiner defends his actions, saying he sought the records to educate his Brandywine Hundred and Greenville constituents about controversial projects being proposed in their areas.

Before The News Journal reported about the policy Wednesday, the administration had begun exploring the feasibility of digitizing records at the request of Weiner and Councilwoman Lisa 
Diller, said Rick Gregory, the county's chief administrative officer.

If land-use documents were scanned into electronic files, they could be easily transferred to developers, citizens and the media, saving money for all parties on copying costs and paper, Weiner said.

"There is no reason why it should not be in an electronic form, unless people request it," Weiner said.

With computer and Internet access so widespread now, Gregory said, "it just makes more sense to have [documents] in a PDF format" for council members or the public.

Under the state's open-records law, any citizen can ask to review public records, with some exemptions, such as police investigation reports and records pertaining to pending litigation .

New Castle County charges 50 cents per copied page. Council members are given one free copy of a land development proposal in their district after it's filed, said David Culver, general manager  of the land-use department.

Culver said his department relies upon council members to disseminate information about those plans to constituents through neighborhood civic group meetings.

But in Weiner's case, he sought four copies for development plans filed for the Greenville Center shopping center, officials said.

Some are defending the administration because Weiner appeared to use his position to get free documents for a civic group and its legal counsel.

"I don't think they had any obligation to make multiple copies [for Weiner]. That's what kind of ruined it for everybody," said state Sen. Karen Peterson, a Stanton Democrat and author of recent changes to the FOIA law.

The News Journal's story sparked a string of e-mails Wednesday and Thursday about the merits of the policy between Councilman George Smiley and resident Jack Wells of Wilmington .

"If the County Executive believes council members are abusing his/her position, he should make his case to County Council and let them make a determination on how to address the problem," Wells wrote to Coons, council members and a reporter in the exchange.

Smiley, a New Castle Democrat, supports charging council members for "excessive" document requests from their $3,500 annual office budget. He contends the new FOIA policy won't "impede a Council member's ability to represent" constituents.

"It may impact an elected individual who wants to utilize their position to take advantage of Government resources to provide information for free to others so that they can try to build a case to sue the very Government/ taxpayers that are paying for the research and dissemination of the information," Smiley replied.
 
"This particular incident is making a mountain out of a molehill." New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, on requiring council members to file requests and pay for some records 

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