By Jesse Chadderdon
Posted Jul 28, 2010 @ 10:22 AM
Last update Jul 28, 2010 @ 10:29 AM
Wilmington, Del. —
New Castle County has scrapped a plan to charge council members for documents they ask for from various departments, but council itself is mulling ways it can hold its own accountable for “excessive” requests.
Announced internally this spring after Councilman Robert Weiner (R-Chatham) racked up more than $1,200 in copying costs, the policy required council members to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests just as the public would, which includes a 50 cent fee per page (over 20 pages).
Almost as soon as it was made public however, the policy became a headache for the administration, with council members, open government advocates and political rivals decrying it as a way to stifle the free flow of information and the ability of the legislative branch to effectively govern.
County Executive Chris Coons, the Democratic nominee for United States Senate, immediately found himself in the crosshairs of the GOP, who called it “unconscionable that council members should be required to file FOIA requests to get basic information about the government they are elected to oversee.”
Policy Director Nicole Majeski said Tuesday that county departments have been instructed to honor all requests made by council members. Furthermore, Chief Administrative Officer Rick Gregory said no councilperson was ever charged under the temporary policy.
Some on council, however, agree with the premise that council members should be accountable for monopolizing resources with excessive or improper requests. Council President Paul Clark introduced a draft policy that would give council the ability to levy charges against a councilperson’s office if they deem a request inappropriate.
Under the proposal, each request would be tracked by the administration along with the cost of each to the county. A quarterly report would then be delivered to council, which would decide as a body whether any requests were unreasonable.
The cost would be paid out of each council members $3,500 office budget, typically used for office supplies, travel and other incidental expenses.
Clark, a Democrat, said the proposal would maintain a separation of powers, allowing the legislative branch to police itself rather than having the executive branch do it.
“I wish everything was ‘Cumbaya’ and everything worked well, but this is not funny money,” he said. “[These are] taxpayer dollars.”
But Weiner, among others, said the policy was not necessary. He said the legislative branch should not be subject to FOIA regulations, but should receive the information it requests.
“We are not subject to FOIA; we are the government,” Weiner said. “We should be very protective of…maintaining separate but equal branches of government. We’re not just a member of the public; we’re the legislative branch. And [this]
current rule still infers that FOIA applies to this branch of government.”
Weiner said he believes he was “put in the penalty box” for his request because it involved information about two controversial development plans in the Greenville area that he is working with a citizen group to oppose.
Councilman John Cartier (D-Penny Hill) and Councilwoman Lisa Diller (D-Newark) sided with Weiner on the issue.
“I really think we’re going into waters that make no sense at all,” Diller said.
Cartier, Diller and Weiner have been meeting with the administration to urge them to move towards electronic record keeping in all departments in order to mitigate costs.
Clark asked members of council to mull his proposal over their August recess and said it would be revisited when the body reconvenes on Aug. 24.
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