Freedom of Information Act request concerns discussed at county meeting

Pulaski County logoBy MIKE WILLIAMS

The Patriot

Freedom of Information Act requests, publicity from the recent SRX race and a retirement announcement by a key county employee topped the items of discussion for the August meeting of the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors.

During the monthly public comment portion of the meeting, E.W. Harless addressed the board on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Harless asked how the FOIA process works, with County Administrator Jonathan Sweet explaining that a FOIA request is actually a request for certain documents.

“We are required by code to provide the documents that exist pertaining to the request,” Sweet said.

“We often receive a FOIA request, but it is comprised of multiple requests for information on the one page. Each of those are individual FOIA requests,” Sweet explained.

“A lot of times we will receive a FOIA request that includes five to 10 individual requests for documents,” he added.

“Some of these documents can consist of one page, 10 pages and even hundreds of pages of information with respect to the subject matter,” he said.

Harless asked if the county had received any FOIA requests about Sweet.

“Almost bi-weekly,” Sweet responded.

“I want to tell you what I’m getting to,” Harless said.

“We have a lady in this county – she puts more FOIA requests in – I don’t know if she is doing it for herself or someone else. I do know the FOIA is to find out if anything can be done about any one of ya’ll (supervisors and Sweet). Can you use the FOIA process to go after any one of the board members,” Harless asked.

“That’s subject to opinion,” Sweet responded. “The FOIA process is a matter of the Sunshine Laws and that is to open the books and to provide transparency to the citizenry.  So, information can always be weaponized, but the spirit of FOIA is really for public information and transparency. We process every FOIA request we get to the fullest extent we are capable of, and that information can be used in a variety of ways.”

Harless asked if there is a certain individual who submits a lot of FOIA requests.

“We do have an individual who makes requests, one might even say an inordinate number of requests for information,” Sweet said, adding the county has evidence that the individual is also seeking other individuals to make FOIA requests on her behalf.

“Everyone knows who this individual is,” Harless stated.  “I’m not going to stand here and call her name. She wants to hinder the process and the workings of the county by just trying to catch somebody in something.  I think that is terrible. Is there anything the board can do? Can you raise the rate on FOIA requests?”

Sweet said the county can make inflationary adjustments to the pre-set amount it charges per copy.

“However, in the full spirit of transparency, Pulaski County has done its darndest to keep the cost of these requests for information as low as possible. We charge 10 cents per page,” Sweet said.

“Other people charge a dollar,” said Harless.

“We charge what we consider a bare minimum,” Sweet responded. “The public in some instances has a need for information. We try automatically to provide that by putting as much as possible on our website, Facebook, media outlets including their recording live this meeting tonight.  We really want out citizenry to be engaged and informed.”

“All of ya’ll but one is under attack,” Harless said. He said the only board member who hasn’t been attacked is Chris Stafford – “and that is only because he hasn’t gone against her on nothing thus far.”

During the supervisors’ comments portion of the meeting, Massie Supervisor Mike Mooney said he hopes citizens understand that FOIA requests take staff and the county administrator’s time away from being able to work on positive things in the county and making good things happen.

“Let’s continue to celebrate our wins here in Pulaski County. There’s a lot of good things going on. If we would focus on that we’d all be in here once a month celebrating instead of looking for answers to stuff that doesn’t really help move the county in the right direction,” Mooney said.

Draper Supervisor Dirk Compton said one person had filed 163 FOIAs.

“What we charge for FOIAs doesn’t make up for what we have to spend to respond to them, but I guess that’s the price you pay for trying to be transparent,” he said.

Sweet said the 163 FOIA requests Compton spoke of, if each had between five and ten individual requests, “You’re talking about 1,200 FOIA requests by just one individual.”

“If you think about there being 10 to 20 pages for each of those 1,200 FOIA requests, you’re talking about tens of thousands of pages, and hundreds of hours of staff time to process that,” Sweet said.

“Is there not some sort of nuisance rule, because that’s what it is,” said Chairman Laura Walters, looking toward County Attorney Tim Kirtner for an answer.

“I don’t disagree that’s what it is,” said Kirtner, “But unfortunately there’s not.”

“You really can’t charge the rest of the county because of one or two bad actors in respect to the use of FOIA,” said Sweet. “You really want to keep it open to the Sunshine aspect to make getting information easy, affordable and accessible. We’ve done that and want to continue doing that.”

Newby Retiring

Diane Newby, the county’s Finance Director, addressed the board Monday night and announced her retirement effective Dec. 31, 2023.

Sweet noted her announcement comes after 34 years of public service with 15 of those years being in Pulaski County.

Newby said she had had the pleasure of serving the people of Pulaski County since 2008. Prior to beginning to work for Pulaski County, Newby served in the cities of Salem and Radford.

“As the stress of local government employment has taken a toll on my own health, it is time to take a step back and find something else less stressful to do in the future,” Newby told the board.

“It’s also time to step up and take care of several ailing family members,” Newby said, adding she had had numerous wonderful experiences working in local government and had met many wonderful people through the years.

“I can definitely say there is never a dull moment working in local government finance and rarely a slow moment.”

She recalled her enjoyment at working on numerous big projects in Pulaski County over the years.

“It’s been great to see the progress Pulaski County has made in the last 15 years,” she said.

“It has been an honor and a pleasure to work with this board and the county’s staff along with other board members during my tenure,” she said.

Board members thanked Newby for her service.

“I can’t imagine how you’ve done what you’ve done so far. So, take it easy,” Robinson Supervisor Jeff Reeves said.

“I understand everything you’ve gone through,” said Stafford, who recently retired from the top finance post with the school board.

“There is life after governmental finance, as I have learned over the last couple months. It’s not bad,” Stafford told Newby.

“We don’t have enough time this evening to say thank you for your contributions,” Sweet told Newby. “Your retirement is so well earned and deserved, and you will be sorely missed by the leadership team and me personally.”

SRX Race Success

Reeves noted during the supervisors’ comments period that, judging from the county’s Facebook page activity, “Pulaski County put on a good show” during last month’s SRX race at the Pulaski County Motorsports Park, which was broadcast nationally by ESPN.

Sweet noted the county had over 105,000 “hits” on its Facebook page in regard to the SRX race and other activities.  Nearly 80,000 were recorded on the county’s tourism website, he added.

Reeves also urged citizens to sign up for the upcoming GO Pulaski County Day.

Chairman Laura Walters reminded everyone of the upcoming jet ski races on Sept. 9 and 10 to help race funds for the ACCE program.

“People will be in here from all over the east coast,” she noted.

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