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Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood is accusing the Chester County of violating the state's Freedom of Information Act, but County Attorney Joanie Winters says Underwood and his legal representatives simply haven't made a move to pick up requested information.
The issue relates to the long legal fight between Underwood and the county over control of 911. Last year, Chester County Council voted to strip control of the service from Underwood, place it under the auspices of the county and county supervisor and physically move it out of the law enforcement center. Underwood currently maintains control but after separate court appearances in December, January and February, the final decision is still to come from Judge Knox McMahon. The sides have exchanged a number of motions in the meantime. The latest, filed on Wednesday, harkens back to claims made in front of McMahon by Underwood attorney Sandra Senn in January that the county was not complying with her requests for information. That put the county in violation of FOIA, she said. That stance was reiterated Wednesday.
"As Your Honor is aware, I served a FOIA request on Chester County on November 15, 2013," Senn wrote to McMahon. "My most recent attempts to gather the materials requested from the county have gone totally ignored. My fear is that those items will be relevant to the Court's determination in some manner. I know that Your Honor is preparing to rule...however, once your decision has been made, it might be too late to have any information subsequently produced pursuant to the FOIA weighed by you or by an appellate court."
She goes on to ask McMahon to order the county to produce the requested items and to set a deadline for them to be turned over. Included in the filing is a series of emails from Senn to Winters asking for an update on the status of the FOIA request. Specifically, Senn requested every document in the county's possession that contained certain keywords, including "911," "E911," "Ginny," "Sloan," "Virginia," (Virginia "Ginny" Sloan is the E911 director fired by Underwood) "SLED" and others.
The county says, though, that the FOIA request has been answered. A filing by Winters says the county responded to the original request (on November 15, 2013) on November 19, 2013.
"Subsequent to our initial response and after due diligence, Britt Lineberger (county IT director) reported to the court in sworn testimony of his efforts to gather the material that had been generated in response to your requests," Winters said in the filing. "Additionally, I wrote you on January 15, 2014 offering to process and provide the information at cost which is the same process that you indicated the Sheriff would process and produce the information requested by the county. You have thus far declined to authorize us to begin the review and redaction process in accordance with the procedure outlined."
Winters further states that Senn, in spite of this, continues to claim the county has not acted on her FOIA request.
"This is simply not true," Winters said.
Previous correspondences between the two attorneys indicates that the county pulled together the requested documents, which are both on Winters' computer and on a disk. Winters says in an email to Senn that the process isn't as simple as just handing over the disk. Some of the information contained, she said, is sensitive and turning it over would violate HIPAA and FOIA statutes.
"All the information accumulated must be reviewed for redaction and I will will begin this process today," Winters wrote on January 15. "Beginning with the emails, should you advise me to do so."
The county also made a FOIA request of Underwood, which was similar to the request they received. A January 16 FOIA request to Underwood by County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey asks for all documents in Underwood's possession featuring the catch phrases "Ginny," "Virginia," "Sloan," "911," E-911," "Underwood," "Alex," "Big A (Underwood's nickname)," "Sheriff" and others. Senn, in a January 22 email, seemed to question the validity of the request.
"It appears you merely copied my FOIA to the county although my request was tailored to net what might be relevant to this case while yours was tailored only to mirror mine," she wrote. She said the search terms listed by Roddey essentially meant every document and email in the sheriff's possession was being asked for, since his name or the word "sheriff" would be included in some way on nearly everything.
Senn suggests that both sides allow the other to review all the materials turned up from the search and only take was is needed.
"My suggestion to you is that we make this information available under a protective order," Senn wrote on January 21. "You may review it along with Doug McMurray but you may only flag what you want printed. Anything printed or transmitted will be reviewed by us for privacy concerns...also, we would like to add a clawback provision in the protective order so that any items inadvertently shared which were not meant to be shared can be recalled."
Winters indicated she was amenable to the idea.
Both sides put big price tags on the cost of fulfilling the FOIA requests.
"Clearly this could be a lengthy process so it is difficult to calculate an exact cost," Winters wrote. "(Associate attorney) Heather (Mouzon)'s time will be billed at $145.00 per hour and my time will be billed at $185.00 per hour. Copies may be obtained at .25 per copy. Payment shall be remitted at the conclusion of each day of data review."
"Meanwhile, I too am expending time as are members of the sheriff's office in order to fulfill your request," Senn wrote. "My time is billed at $250 per hour. Kevin DeAntonio is billable at $125 per hour. The sheriff's employees will be asked to keep track of their time and give a pro-rata bill based on their salary packages as well."
It is unknown when McMahon will rule on Senn's latest filing or the fate of 911 in general.