We need your voice

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By Editorial Board

From council chambers to courtrooms, ball field to board rooms, we try as best we can to keep you informed on what is happening in your county and what government is doing on your behalf. Our job is to be your eyes and ears, but with one recent development, we hope that you might be willing to be our voice.

In July, Chester County School Superintendent Dr. Angela Bain filed a lawsuit against School Board Chair Denise Lawson and Ken Childs, a school district attorney, for conspiring to defame her, among other things. In an attempt to give you the “why” in addition to the “what” where that suit is concerned, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for six months worth of emails from Bain’s district-provided account. Maybe there would be information in those emails that would demonstrate acrimony or tension between the parties or maybe there would be evidence to prove or disprove Bain’s allegations. We felt it was something the public needed to see. The district responded to our first request by acknowledging the information we requested was not exempt from release under the FOIA, but also told us that providing that information would cost us $29,404.04. The response claimed that the district was within its right to charge us for actual costs incurred in filling our request and said it could charge us the hourly rate of the lowest-paid person at the district with the expertise to fill our request. That person makes over $40 an hour, we were told, and it was estimated that pulling those emails and redacting information from them where appropriate would take 732.5 hours, hence the large price tag.

We conferred with the South Carolina Press Association (which advocates for open government) and an attorney on the matter. SCPA Executive Director Bill Rogers deemed the cost “exorbitant” and said it appeared the district was using cost to cut oversight. An attorney noted that the FOIA provides that in instances where the information requested is “in the public interest” that fees can be reduced or waived. We certainly feel, given the public and possibly costly nature of the lawsuits and allegations behind them, that the information we are seeking qualifies as “in the public interest.” It should also be pointed out that we made an identical request in 2015 after the controversial departure from the district of Dr. Agnes Slayman, former superintendent. In that instance, the district put the emails on a disk and gave them to us at no charge. In 2011 we made an even larger request, asking for all the emails of Dr. Thomas Graves (another former superintendent) and all members of the school board. The district printed those out and only charged us for the cost of the paper. We wondered why the cost had skyrocketed from nothing to about the annual salary of a first-year teacher in three years.

So, we resubmitted our request and included all those points. In the response we received Monday (signed by attorney Alexander Sherard), the district did not budge, reiterating that the actual cost to them to fill our request would be $29,404.04. They claim no one other than the district’s director of information technology (who they claim makes $40.82 an hour) has the skills needed to fulfill our request and that the 732.5 hours figure was arrived at by estimating that it would take five minutes to retrieve, then review for redaction purposes, each of the 8,791 emails requested.

Our stance has not changed. What they are requesting is a bloated, unreasonable sum that essentially makes information they agree is public off limits. They are burying public checks and balances under a gigantic price tag. The response says they cannot waive or reduce the fees to respond to our request “based on the amount of time that it will take the IT director to conduct the necessary tasks prior to production.” We suppose that is a response to our “in the public interest” argument, and as such is a lousy one. The FOIA does not say fees can be waived “if the public body thinks it’s not too much trouble.” It says, simply and clearly, “in the public interest” which we believe this is. They didn’t really answer why the same request cost us nothing three years ago and the cost of paper only seven years ago and now costs $5,000 more than Chester County’s median household income. To be fair, it is a different administration and different attorney than we dealt with on our previous large requests and that may have been a question they can’t honestly answer. It doesn’t make the question any less valid, however. The response recommended we reduce the scope of our search to reduce the cost. We guess that’s their way of telling us if we only asked for three months of emails, the cost would fall to the low, low price of $14,702.02. Why, half of that (six weeks) would only run us  $7,351.01 and one week would be a bargain at $1,225! It is difficult to narrow our search anyway, when we can’t pinpoint exactly what we’re looking for. That’s why we tried to cast a wide net in the first place.

At this point, we can pay the amount requested, which isn’t really an option at all. We do not have the financial means to do so and wouldn’t pay it even if we did on general principle. We can tell ourselves we tried our best to do right by the public and just let it go. We can also file a lawsuit against the school district, one that we are confident we would win, but that would be expensive for everyone involved. We are still weighing what we are going to do, but those are our three options. You have another option, however.

It’s important to understand that the FOIA is for everyone’s use. Certainly, we make use of it more than folks in most lines of work, but it is just as much a tool for citizens to use. So, we’d ask you to put yourself in our shoes. Would you find it fair and equitable for the school district’s IT director, whose salary who you pay, to access the servers your tax dollars purchased and retrieve and redact one week of emails from the account of Bain, who you pay $165,000 annually, and charge you more than $1,200 to do so? Do you feel like the district is putting up onerous financial roadblocks to keep information they don’t want seen from the public? Do you think those documents are yours and that you should be able to inspect them without having to take out a loan to do so? If so, we hope you will say so. As luck would have it, the district has a series of open community forums coming up and if this matter seems important to you, we hope you’ll politely tell them how you feel. We also have campaigns for a couple of school board seats going and things that matter to potential constituents usually matter to candidates. We think public interest and persistence might make a difference here. We’ve said about all we can say on this matter. Our eyes and ears continue to tell us there is something worth seeing in those emails. Maybe your voice can help flush them out in the open.