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County government backs down on punishing Councilman Weiner for exposing irregularities in the land use decision-making process for Stoltz projects - News Journal

Delaware government: New Castle County stops charging county council for records
Members bicker over new plan
By CHAD LIVENGOOD • The News Journal • July 28, 2010

New Castle County Executive Chris Coons' administration has abandoned a temporary policy of charging County Council members for county documents and will let council regulate itself.

Without authorization from council, the administration put the policy in place in February after Councilman Robert Weiner requested hundreds of pages of land use records and turned them over to constituents, who would normally have to pay for them. The county estimated Weiner saved the constituents at least $1,200.

On Tuesday, Council President Paul Clark proposed a new rule that would require council members to send a formal request to the executive branch via e-mail.

The member would initially get the records free of charge, Clark said.

The administration would then be required to provide the council with a quarterly report detailing "the production costs incurred" through the county's 50-cents-a-page copying fee.

"If any council member feels that charges accrued by a council member to be excessive or improper, the issue shall be placed on the Finance Committee agenda and, if Council agrees, the charges will be the responsibility of the council member," Clark's proposal read.

Clark said the cost could come out of the council member's $3,500 annual office budget or his or her own pocket.

The council president, a Democrat, said his proposal would allow council to police itself on the matter "to see if there's any potential waste or abuse."

But after the proposal met strong opposition at a Tuesday committee meeting, Clark chose not to seek a vote.

Councilwoman Lisa Diller said it would set a bad precedent.

"I do not see how any kind of policy like this is going to make anyone's job any easier," said Diller, a Democrat from Newark.

Councilman John Cartier, a Democrat from Claymont, said putting a "cloud over costs" may "impair a council member's ability to represent the public that elected them."

Weiner spent 15 minutes of the committee meeting detailing how he sought the documents to help a citizens group expose what he called "irregularities" in the land use process for major development projects in his district.

A Republican, Weiner publicly challenged the Democratic administration Tuesday to provide legal justification that allows the executive branch to require a freedom-of-information request from members of the legislative branch.

He said the policy was implemented "to punish me" for questioning the Land Use Department's procedures.

"I was placed in the penalty box afterward for having committed the sin of obtaining information for citizens, which ... exposed irregularities in the land use decision-making process," Weiner said, reading from prepared remarks.

Councilman George Smiley, a New Castle Democrat and ally of Clark's, voiced support for the council president's proposal. "It's not doing anything that I don't already do," Smiley said.

Diller also questioned "who gets to define" what is an excessive request. Some files for a single land use plan can contain thousands of pages of documents.

"I really think we're going into waters that make no sense at all," Diller said.

Clark noted the council's travel and office budgets were created in the wake of past controversies when individual members spent the entire council's budgets without authorization or oversight.

"This is not funny money," Clark said. "This is taxpayer dollars that is sitting in land use."

County officials say the 50-cent-per-page copying fee is necessary to cover the cost of workers who prepare the documents and for overhead. Citizens can inspect records for free at county offices during regular business hours.

A national open government advocate says New Castle County's copying costs are "ridiculously expensive" and that the FOIA polices attempt to create unprecedented hurdles for council members.

"How are you supposed to govern the county if you don't have access to information that you need to govern?" said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va. "Policies like that [show] they want to discourage people from coming in and bothering them."

Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition in Columbia, Mo., called the county's FOIA policy battle "a petulant feud, and an unfortunate one."
"A citizen seeing this might wonder what barriers, costs and obstacles will be in place for them if the elected officials themselves must jump through hoops to get information," Bunting said in an e-mail.

Nicole Majeski, Coons' chief of staff, said the administration wants e-mail requests for documents from council members to keep track of what requests are fulfilled.

"We're not denying council members access to information, nor have we," Majeski said. "And we're not charging council members for the information."

Councilman Bob Weiner’s additional note: “For months, I had been routinely denied documents unless I paid for them. I also only requested one copy of each document; not four as incorrectly reported.” 

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