Board may discuss ‘massive’ records requests

By Tom Joyce -

Obtaining public records from City Hall has been relatively easy — making a request and then paying a copying fee of 25 cents per page.

If a recording of a council meeting is needed, no problem, just plunk down $5 for a CD.

But what happens when someone asks for huge amounts of information going back several years, which can require much research and other efforts on the part of city employees and spell hundreds of man-hours? In such cases, the costs end up being much more than printing a few pages.

This issue is on the agenda for a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting today at 2 p.m., triggered by recent “massive public records requests” made to the city through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That law originated to streamline the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by governmental entities.

In this case, at least two different parties submitted requests to obtain all email correspondence of council members for the last six years in which any city business was addressed. Officials say this is an unprecedented situation, reflecting modern technical technology that allows such data to be stored on computer servers for years.

Among those recently making the FOIA requests were Gene Clark, an official of a citizens group, the Committee for Transparency in Mount Airy, and Peter Pequeno, an official of Surrey Bank and Trust.

The period specified for their email requests covers the time before the city government bought the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown and ongoing efforts to redevelop the site including plans for a Barter Theatre expansion there. Clark’s request was aimed at pinpointing intricate details of those events which might not be known to the public.

Pequeno’s records request was sought “to see if Mr. Clark or any of his associates had made any prior threats against Surrey Bank, any of its officers or directors,” according to a Sept. 15 email from Pequeno to city officials. The banker explained in the email that it was in response to a supposed plan by Clark to run newspaper ads regarding his institution.

Surrey Bank has closely monitored the Spencer’s redevelopment and earlier this year introduced a plan for financing the theater.

Pequeno wrote in his email that he has “a problem with anything that may be considered potentially defamatory or libelous directed at our company, any of its officers or directors.”

Requests withdrawn

Since seeking the backlog of emails, Clark and Pequeno have withdrawn their FOIA requests, according to a joint letter from the two to City Manager Barbara Jones dated Sept. 24. Their letter stated they were doing so “given the limited city resources, and in the spirit of unity and cooperation.”

The matter of how to handle massive public records requests was discussed at length by Mount Airy officials during the last council meeting on Sept. 20 — four days before Clark’s and Pequeno’s withdrawal.

At that meeting, board members said they wanted City Attorney Hugh Campbell and staff members to prepare recommendations for a new policy to address the matter.

A memo to the council this week states that Campbell was still working on the policy and it would not be ready for the meeting this afternoon.

The matter remains on the agenda for possible discussion by board members.

Officials concerned

During the Sept. 20 meeting, Mount Airy’s leadership was quick to acknowledge that citizens are perfectly within their rights to seek public records and have them provided in a timely manner — even if that means poring through years of accumulated documents.

“Maybe if they could just tell us what they’re looking for … we could go straight to it,” Mayor David Rowe said.

“The why is irrelevant,” the city attorney responded concerning the motives behind such requests.

Yet city officials cited a need to have a measure in place to somehow provide compensation when huge amounts of materials are sought, including for the requests then on the table and any others emerging in the future.

“I think we need to develop some policy to determine how to process these requests,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said, “and to start charging for them.”

“What I’m concerned with is city staff having to stop what they’re doing and provide this information,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said.

“And the city is coming out with zeroes on the cost,” she added. “It is public record, but somebody’s got to pull it together.”

Board members were told that state law prohibits making direct charges to citizens for staff time to handle massive records requests.

The requests for six years’ worth of emails on the table from Pequeno and Clark at that time would require much filtering and could take 30 to 40 hours of staff time, the city attorney said. “We have never addressed anything like this before.”

“This is just a taste of the future, if we don’t get some policy now,” Commissioner Brinkley warned.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that some officials’ email correspondence concerning public business has been channeled through non-city accounts, such as at a business. But this still falls within the scope of FOIA requests, Campbell said.

The city manager suggested that going forward, council members restrict such communications to the municipal email system, to avoid the need for sorting out such information from private correspondence.

This seemed to especially frustrate Mayor Rowe, due to city-related emails having been sent to and from the account of his construction company.

“I don’t even know where to start,” he said of the filtering process.

“And I will never answer another (city-related) email on my business computer.”

By Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.