Wicomico’s Public Information Fee Policy Questioned

SALISBURY – Wicomico County Council members raised questions this week regarding the county’s policy for charging the public for information requests.

At the conclusion of Tuesday morning’s Wicomico County Council legislative session, Councilman Bob Culver requested a meeting with the County Executive’s Office to discuss the county’s policy regarding fee’s charged with releasing government records to the public.

In late February, The Daily Times published an article stating, “Wicomico County will not waive the $816 fee assessed to The Daily Times for statements on how the county executive, County Council and staff members have used their government credit cards. The decision on Monday by County Attorney Ed Baker leaves the community newspaper with two options: pay the fee or seek a solution through litigation.”

Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt responded, “The request by The Daily Times to issue a waiver of fees was weighed in accordance with the requirements of the state law, and related court cases, the fees — which reflected and incorporated the many employee hours to satisfy multiple requests, at taxpayer expense — also were imposed in accordance with the law,”

According to The Daily Times, the request for the past three years of credit card statements for council and staff and the past seven years of credit card statements for county executive and staff members were requested in November. The County Executive’s Office charged $500 for County Council staff member records before October of 2011 and $316 for the remaining records.

“I realize in all honesty part of the problem was the time lapse going back to find some of the records,” Culver said this week. “But we should make it as economical as possible for the Maryland Coast Dispatch, The Daily Times and anybody else to get our records, so that everything is as transparent as possible. Maybe after a three-year period it will cost more because we will have to pay for the labor. I don’t know how long we keep our records close by in this building, but after a certain period of time we have to search for records at another location, and I can understand that … I would like to make the County Council records as open as possible. I know I have nothing to hide, and the county has nothing to hide.”

County Executive Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg said Wicomico County follows federal and state laws when it comes to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which provides the first two hours of a jurisdictions labor is at no cost.

“When private enterprises request a significant amount of investigation, which The Daily Times has done repeatedly and also requested we put the information into a format to their liking … this is a private enterprise asking the county taxpayers to spend county labor doing their job for them, and I don’t think that is entirely appropriate,” Strausburg said. “We are happy to provide any information to anyone who requests appropriate information but when a private enterprise comes forward and makes a request that burdens county departments with hours, upon hours, upon hours of work we think it is appropriate that our taxpayers in the county are protected.”

Councilman Joe Holloway mentioned the county has a Public Information Officer (PIO) position.

“I understand the costs going back years and looking up records but we are also paying a Public Information Officer … this person is to distribute information to the public. The taxpayers are already paying a pretty high amount for that,” he said.

Strausburg asserted the information requested by The Daily Times exceeds a PIO’s capability and took Director of Finance Andy Mackel hours to assemble.

“Tamara [Brooks, PIO] gets many requests every day and most of them are very easy to fulfill. Most of it is ready available and we send it out but there have been many requests coming from that paper that are beyond the scope of an ordinary FOIA,” he said.