Freedom of Information Act report sparks firey exchange between citizen, supervisor

A report Monday by Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests received by the county set off a bit of a firestorm between one citizen and a board member.

Near the end of their monthly meeting, the Board of Supervisors heard Sweet report on the volume of FOIA requests received by the county.

He told the supervisors that since February of 2010, the county had received 316 FOIA requests.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a state law that gives citizens and the media the right to obtain certain government information in the Commonwealth.

As part of Sweet’s presentation, a three-page document listing each FOIA request since 2010 was displayed inside the board’s meeting room.

Sweet never mentioned any one individual specifically during his presentation, but those in attendance could easily deduce from the document being displayed what citizen most of his presentation centered upon.

Following his comments, Cloyd District Supervisor Joe Guthrie quizzed Sweet on the report.

Guthrie wanted to know what percentage of the 316 requests had come from individuals who are paying no real estate taxes to the county.

Sweet responded that approximately 38 percent of those submitting FOIA requests are delinquent in paying their real estate taxes.

“How about personal property?” Guthrie responded.

Again, Sweet answered, “38 percent.”

“What is the percentage who owe over $5,000,” Guthrie asked.

Noting the information is “public record,” Sweet responded, “Approximately 38 percent owe over $5,500.”

Guthrie asked about those who owe the Public Service Authority. Sweet again answered, 38 percent.

How many owe over $2,000 to the PSA, Guthrie asked. Again, Sweet responded, 38 percent.

Guthrie then asked how many requests had been made by this “delinquent taxpayer.”

Sweet responded that this particular citizen had submitted 121 of the 316 requests.

Guthrie said it seemed to him that it would take a lot of county employees’ time to respond to each of the FOIA requests, and asked Sweet to estimate the time needed.

Sweet responded that if you consider each request taking 3.5 hours to research and prepare a response, the requests from the one individual in question would total 423 hours – 2.5 months or 10.6 weeks – of staff time.

Sweet told supervisors he would gladly include the FOIA report on a monthly basis for review by the board.

“So citizens are aware of the time and effort being put forth to employ transparency to our citizens and show that we go to great lengths in time and effort to provide the information the public finds of interest. This is demonstrative of the lengths we go,” he said.

Chairman Andy McCready asked Sweet if there have been any FOIA requests made by citizens who still owe previous FOIA request fees to the county.

Sweet said there had been multiple occasions.

“We are adhering better to FOIA policies now. We no longer provide FOIA responses or process FOIA requests for people who owe the county money for previous FOIA requests,” Sweet said.

He reiterated to the board that 38 percent of all the FOIA requests since 2010 had come from individual who owes the county approximately $8,300 in taxes and fees.

McCready noted that, according to state law, having back taxes or owing utility bills is not a prohibition for making a FOIA request. However, he added, if a citizens has unpaid FOIA fees that can be a basis for the county to not receive any further FOIA requests form that individual.

The exchange between Sweet and Guthrie angered one citizen who addressed the board during citizen comment time.

Saying he represented the “coffee club at Hardee’s in Dublin,” E.W. Harless argued he deserved five minutes of time to address the board, which McCready allowed. Individuals addressing the board are given three minutes.

Harless then turned his attention to Guthrie, telling the supervisor he ought to go ahead and name the person being discussed in the FOIA presentation.

“You’re not the best at paying taxes yourself, if you remember,” Harless said. “How dare YOU call someone out?”

He went on to accuse Guthrie of “playing both sides” in regard to the Board of Supervisors and School Board’s negotiations on the middle school and other issues.

“When will you stop cutting the feet out from under the rest of the board (supervisors) members,” Harless asked.

“I’ll tell you what the plan is,” Harless said to Guthrie. “The plan is to ask for $47 million to build the middle school, and the citizens think supposedly this is going to build it. But, no, the plan is get the $47 million, then change this Board of Supervisors – which you would love to chair.”

Harless said he had heard it said that the Board of Supervisors “needs to have people on it with the same vision as the members of the School Board,” and noted Guthrie previously served on the School Board.

Harless offered advice to Guthrie.

“Work with the Board of Supervisors and quit playing both sides of the fence.  The School Board knows everything that goes on with the Board of Supervisors,” Harless charged.

“In my opinion you’re one of the biggest liberals in Pulaski County … tax and spend,” Harless continued.

“Tell me if I’m wrong,” Harless said.

“I wouldn’t want to interrupt you, Mr. Harless,” Guthrie responded.

“I’d rather you did it now so I can get more time,” Harless responded back.

Moments later, during a time set aside for supervisors’ comments, Guthrie responded to Harless’ comments.

“I appreciate your comments, Mr. Harless, but I can tell you you are mistaken on some things, and I would be glad to have a conversation with you on that later,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie stated he is not delinquent on his taxes.

Harless yelled from the back of the room, “Not now!”

Guthrie continued that there was a time when he was “unaware that he owed some taxes.”

“When I found out, it was paid. When it was brought to my attention my business owed taxes we paid them,” Guthrie said.

He told Harless that he “hated to disappoint him,” but “there is no grand scheme” concerning the new middle school.

“Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been a lifelong Republican – conservative – and I have no intention of raising anyone’s taxes in the next four years – if I am re-elected,” Guthrie continued.

He added, he is not doing anything to “undermine this board or this county.”