Mouth That Roars

Bill Liblick has made a name for himself of National TV Talk Shows where he spouted his outspoken views from the front row. Now he offers you his opinion every week in the "MOUTH THAT ROARS" Column in the Sullivan County Post.

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May 29th, 2009

Can freedom of information laws be abused?

Thanks to Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL) the public has a right to obtain documents and information from government agencies through filing a simple request. Under the law, the data must be released within five business days.

Freedom of Information laws have been credited with keeping government honest. They are often utilized by investigative news reporting agencies, concerned citizens, and civic minded organizations. I have even utilized these laws to gather information for this column.

High volume FOIL requests are a daily routine in Sullivan County. If you walk into the Board of Elections office there is even a sign displayed stating times FOIL requests are granted.

Individuals with self-centered motives and personal vendettas have also been known to continually use these laws to assist them in their witch-hunts.

Sullivan County Community College administrators are concerned about continual FOIL requests coming from the same individuals. College officials claim they are time consuming and diverting their focus from education.

It all started in 2007 when Ken Walter embarked on a so far unsuccessful campaign to stop the college from building wind turbines near property his family owns. Although he does not have county support, they back his right to gather information.

Walter calls the turbine project “a private venture on public land,” that will be an eyesore and produce excessive noise. He insists his FOIL requests are legitimate and are mainly for board meetings and record disbursements.

Walter alleges college administrators are conducting business without public sessions where minutes must be taken.

He told me, “So much for open government. Would you sit idly by and let someone shove a large noise machine in your face without fighting back?”

Walter claims through his requests for information he uncovered the $370,000 pool the college is building did not receive the required three bid minimum.

SCCC Board Chair Phyllis Coombe claims since 2007 they received more than 67 FOIL requests from Walter. “That is not counting the duplicate requests. It does count as a single request for more than a year’s worth of minutes, financial reports etc. even though it includes many separate documents.”

First there was a dispute whether Walter could receive his requests through email where he would not have to pay for copies. The college resisted, and the county intervened.

Coombe told me, “SCCC is making a diligent effort to comply with all FOIL requests. Information is being sent electronically whenever possible. Some requests involve nonpublic information. Some of them require substantial redacting and thus may take longer than 5 days to prepare which sometimes includes scanning individual documents. SCCC does not have a special employee to perform these tasks, it’s never seemed necessary. The persons designated to receive these requests also have other important tasks which must be neglected in order to handle these current, incessant requests.”

She insisted that information was not being withheld from Walter, “some information is, however, not subject to FOIL. And, denials are counted as refusals to comply by Mr. Walter. The facts do not support these allegations.”

Walter has even been banned from entering the college except for public meetings. He must notify their public safety office in advance. “We all need to be able to focus on the college’s main goal of providing the necessary job training and education for all of Sullivan County’s citizens in order to further economic development in our county,” Coombe stressed.

Coombe admitted that she personally believes “Walter may be abusing the intent of the FOIL laws. Any motive he may have is not clear to me.”

Legislator Leni Binder said, “The law may be a nuisance and expensive to enforce, but freedom, trite as it seems, is never free and those of us in public have the burden and obligation, legal and moral, to respond.”

“Mr. Walter’s motives have no bearing on our obligation to respond. I can understand the frustration of the college trustees, but they must encourage administration to live that old adage that action is louder than words and a learning environment must always entertain questions–that is, in fact, its mission.”

Walter feels vindicated because SCCC has announced a new policy where they will videotape all meetings and post them along with their minutes on their website.

Being referred to as a “gadfly” Walter says puts him in good company with Benjamin Franklin and the signers of the Decoration of Independence. He asked, “Where would we be without their voices?” Good point!

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