It's not a waste, it's the law

OK, this story makes me tetchy.

You can read the whole thing on The Southwest Times website or you can read it below, but here's the set-up: at a Pulaski County Board of Supervisors meeting, a supervisor and the county administrator engaged in an exchange over a projected slide showing the number of FOIA requests filed each year for the past nine years.  The total was 361, which equals 35.4/year, which equals fewer than 3/month.

The supervisor asked how many of those requests were made by "inidividuals who are delinquent on their real estate taxes," those who were "delinquent on personal property taxes," those who are "more than $5,500 delinquent in their real estate taxes," and those who are "let's just say a number," he said, "over $2,000 delinquent on their PSA bills?”

To each question, the administrator answered, "Thirty-eight percent."

Asked how many requests the "delinquent taxpayer" had made, the answer was 121, which is 38% of 316.

Fact check: It shouldn't matter whether someone owes back taxes because, as one supervisor correctly pointed out, FOIA says only that citizens must stay current with their FOIA request bills in order to get future requests filled. It doesn't say anything about owing fees or taxes in any other setting.

But back to our production.

“I’m surprised . . . that you have the same percentage for every question I asked,” the supervisor continues. “How can that be?”

The administrator says that one person has been making 38% of the requests, and in response to another prearranged question, estimates that -- at an average of 3.5 hours/request -- this one person has taken up 423 hours of staff time.

Then he adds:

It equates to 10.6 weeks approximately. We’ve wasted … I’m sorry … we’ve spent 2.5 months of staff time responding to one individual’s request.

We've wasted ... I'm sorry ... we've spent.

FOIA is the law. Government must spend time complying with this law, just like it must comply with laws on stormwater management, the budgeting process, government purchasing, inspecting food service establishments, etc., etc.

So to say that time spent complying with the law is wasted time, is to say that complying with other laws is simlarly wasted time. The implication that the citizen is using more than his/her fair share of the county's resources may be fair game, but I wonder if they feel the same way about the individual building owner who needs multiple inspections to check on fixes, or the individual who has needed multiple emergency services because of an unpredictable medical condition. Or what about the person who uses the computers in the library more than anyone else?

And what of the remaining 62% of FOIA requesters? They've taken up more than 17 weeks, or 4.25 months, of staff time over nine years. Are they, too, wastes of government time, or just this one person? Did any of them owe back taxes or were any delinquent on a some assessed fee? What if some of them didn't even vote?

The performance seemed designed to embarass the requester, but one wonders whether it also created the perception in the minds of others that their future FOIA requests will be publicly, nonsensically connected to some blemish on their government or personal past.

I'll hold out hope, though, that citizens will be energized by this show to learn more about their government, and that the "316, which equals 35.4/year, which equals fewer than 3/month" number only grows.


*Though the individual was never named, the FOIA log was included in the materials for the board meeting and posted on the county's website. It's easy to figure out who they're talking about, and it's also easy to see that the majority of this person's requests are about county expenditures.

‘38 percent’ makes for interesting end to meeting


This week’s meeting of the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors saw the passage of many resolutions and proclamations, but the final minutes of the meeting provided some unexpected fireworks.

Toward the end of Monday’s gathering, Jonathan Sweet, the Pulaski County Administrator, displayed a list of every Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made to the county from February 2010 to the present day. In those nine years, Pulaski County administrators were required to answer 316 FOIA requests.

These FOIA requests are generally made to require the county government to supply information about various expenditures, employee salaries, building permits, etc.

When the FOIA requests were displayed on the big screen, Supervisor Joe Guthrie and county administrator Jonathan Sweet engaged in a unique exchange.

“Mr. Sweet, what percentage of these FOIA requests come from individuals who are delinquent in their real estate taxes,” Guthrie asked.

“Mr. Guthrie, to the best of our knowledge approximately 38 percent of those individuals requesting intervention from the county by way of FOIA are individuals who are delinquent in their real estate taxes,” Sweet answered.

“What about property taxes?” asked Guthrie.

“To the best of our knowledge, at minimum, approximately 38 percent of the individuals requesting FOIA requests from the county are delinquent on personal property taxes,” Sweet answered.

“Let’s say $5,000,” said Guthrie. “What percentage of those FOIA requests are from those individuals that are say more than $5,000 delinquent in their real estate taxes?”

“To the best of our knowledge, looking at the information that is public record, approximately 38 percent of the individuals requesting FOIAs are in fact more than $5,500 delinquent in their real estate taxes to the county,” said Sweet.

“What about individuals who are more than, let’s go ahead and say a number, over $2,000 delinquent on their PSA bills?” asked Guthrie.

“Again using public information, if we were to analyze the amount of individuals making these requests to the county that are more than, in fact, $2,800 delinquent in PSA bills, that would be approximately 38 percent of the individuals requesting FOIA,” Sweet answered.

“So you’ve been giving us percentages, let us talk about numbers,” Guthrie said. “How many requests has this delinquent tax payer been making to the board of supervisors?”

“Mr. Guthrie, at least 121 requests out of 316 total requests,” Sweet responded. “That’s 38 percent.”

“I’m surprised, Mr. Sweet, that you have the same percentage for every question I asked,” Guthrie stated. “How can that be?”

“In fact, the reason why we have the same percentage is because the same individual is making that request,” said Sweet. “In other words, one individual is making 38 percent of all of these FOIA requests.”

“That seems like a lot of time for our county employees and staff,” said Guthrie. “Can you tell us how much time that consumes for the county staff to provide that information?”

“Hypothetically speaking, if you were to put an average of 3.5 hours per request, at 121 requests, 3.5 hours is 423 hours or approximately 2.5 months of staff time,” said Sweet. “It equates to 10.6 weeks approximately. We’ve wasted … I’m sorry … we’ve spent 2.5 months of staff time responding to one individual’s request.”

Sweet went on to say that he would be happy to update this report every month to show the public how much time and energy goes to provide information which the public finds of interest.

Chairman Andy McCready emphasized that back taxes are no obstacle for someone wanting to file a FOIA request, but if individuals do not pay for the requests, as reportedly has been the case, then FOIA requests could legitimately be withheld.

Sweet finished his talk saying, “There have been years where one individual was responsible for 70 percent of FOIA requests in a single year. In one year, it was 70.2, another year it was 64.7, another year it was 52.9, another year it was 48.5 and in 2019, one individual owing the county more than $8,300 made 50 percent of the FOIA requests.”

While the individual requesting the large amount of FOIAs was not named at the meeting, the list of FOIA requests, which can be found on the Pulaski County website under BoardDocs, does. Enter the Public Site and the agenda for Monday, March 25, Board Meeting to view the graphic under the Freedom of Information Act Request Report.

E.W. Harless, the only citizen to speak at the meeting, was given the standard three minutes to make his point until he told the board that he represented “The Coffee Club at Hardees.” Since he was representing a group, Harless was given five minutes to address the board.

Harless did not address the board, per se, but rather directed his comments to Supervisor Guthrie.

“I’ve been listening to you talk about the FOIA requests … and let me tell you something sir, you’re not the best at paying your taxes, so how dare you call somebody out,” said Harless.

Harless went on to express his displeasure regarding Guthrie’s actions as a supervisor in no uncertain terms as well as calling into question his party affiliation.

At meeting’s end, when the supervisors take their turn to express themselves, Guthrie answered Harless by thanking him for expressing his views to the board. Guthrie then stated that he had delinquent business taxes at one point, but as soon as he found out about these delinquent taxes, he paid them immediately. Guthrie went on to say that he has always been a Republican and had no intention of raising anyone’s taxes.

After answering Harless, Guthrie took the opportunity to announce his intention to run for re-election for his seat on the county board of supervisors. Other candidates, including John Travis, who is running for Andy McCready’s seat, and Fritz Streff, who is running for Dean Pratt’s soon to be vacant seat, were also in attendance at Monday’s meeting.


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