I want to formally respond to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request issues. I am responding from my position as City Clerk. I have never denied receiving anyone’s open record requests. I have let everyone who has made a request:
1. Know that I am in receipt of said request in whatever manner that has been sufficient for the requestor whether verbally, in writing, by email, or through the City Attorney, DuAnn Davis.
2. Given update on the status of the requests.
3. Notified the requestors of any unusual circumstances or reason for the delay in the response either verbally, in writing, or some other form of communication.
4. Have either partially filled a request with information that I had.
I over-stand the importance of FOIA requests, I truly do. I understand the importance of FOIA for the media. For citizens, it can be the only legal way to ascertain a Government’s laws. As reported since the beginning of my tenure in late 2020, the City has undergone a complete staff change. During this change, new staff took over old issues. Recovering from the pandemic was the primary concern, and making sure the City could still operate was my initial goal. That has been a challenge, to say the least. Our City’s story is no different from many cities in Georgia. High turnover, succession planning, and many other common issues have plagued not only this office but many others. In fact, according to an article printed in The Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” there were 130 instances in which State and local officials in 39 states and the District of Columbia cited the pandemic as a reason to curtail access to public records. Many agencies suspended requests until further notice. Agencies have been encouraged when it comes to filling requests to:
• Do their best to timely acknowledge requests and appeals
• Notify requestors of unusual circumstances
• Make timely determinations on requests for expedited processing (Legal or EPD)
Other recommendations for cities are to update, maintain, and interact with customers through their websites. The website is encouraged to be packed with information that citizens may want access to through a FOIA. This office has made strides towards doing that. Since November 2021, this office has run with two full-time employees and one part-time employee. In November 2020, there were three full-time staff members, and two part-time staff members. No less work, deadlines, or requirements, less staff to complete it. This is no different again from many cities. This, like most cities, creates the perfect circumstance for a huge delay. Unlike some Federal agencies, according to the Washington Post article, who have largely abandoned their FOIA requests. The State Department’s FOIA program had pending requests from 2006 when the pandemic began in 2020. FOIAs are very important, but I have not prioritized that over other essential needs of City Hall Administration. FOIA administration has not been cast aside at City Hall; they have been delayed. Councilwoman Carolyn Blackshear recently sent me to a class on June 8 that focuses on Customer Service by Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) and FOIA requests were discussed. We are revamping our Operating procedures and we are making changes to the website from the suggestions made by Mr. Nerzig from this past Monday’s City Council meeting.
I professionally am disheartened by Lindsay Bennett’s and Donald Prestage’s letters to the Representatives. This is largely in part because the efforts used to fight this fight, could better be used to handle more important City business. I am also flabbergasted, because Bennett has contacted this office previously to let us know she would be stopping by and then she would come get whatever information needed. She has never been denied access to come in and get the information for herself. We are required to make the information available for inspection. She has used this method before, it is only not sufficient now [I believe] because of all of the dissension between Council members. Also, the information requested by Bennett was made available for inspection to her and the Council, as a whole, just 48 hours prior to her making her open records request for the same said information. When the Council reviewed the file, Bennett refused. Bennett only requested the information after the Council did not agree with her views after they inspected the information. When Bennett made the request to remove the requested information from the office, I asked her to please be patient. I consulted the City Attorney and Payroll specialists (multiple ones) to ask what I could legally let be removed from the Office as she was the only Council member wanting to remove items from a personnel file. What Bennett is calling a “hard time” was me volunteering my personal time to allow access to the file. A lot of the FOIA requests are filled personally by me on the weekends or evening on my own personal time. I do this to reserve office hours for other City business. FOIAs can be used as a tool to try to find compromises and solutions. The more requests are made by Bennett, the more division is created publicly.
In closing, FOIA request delays are an ongoing issue everywhere. This City has other causes to fight. Come in and research your heart out. Come in, Bennett, and research your issues. I cannot say this of Mr. Prestage, as he stops in regularly. He calls in work orders. He sits in with the Mayor regularly.
Nivea C. Jackson
Reidsville City Clerk