City Limits reporter Jarrett Murphy sarcastically celebrated the one year “birthday” of his still unresolved state freedom of information request to the New York Department of Education for records relating to moldy pizza in school cafeterias in a September 29 article.
He described 14 identical letters he received from the department in the intervening months politely explaining to him that “due to the volume and complexity of requests we receive and process, and to determine whether any records or portions thereof will be subject to redactions . . , additional time is required to respond substantively to your request.” Each letter identified an “anticipated” date on which the records would be released. Each date came and went, and the department produced no records.
Murphy guiltily acknowledged that he had “more regular communication with the [New York] DOE’s Office of Legal Services over the past year than [he had] with [his] mom.”
While it’s true that a good sense of humor comes in handy when dealing with bureaucracies, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s Kate Howard was probably not laughing when she was forced to file two open records appeals in August and September, following the appeal she filed in June, from the University of Louisville’s failure to respond in writing, and within three business days, to her open records requests.
But the last laugh was hers when — for the second and third time this year — Ms. Howard received favorable rulings from the Office of the Attorney General.
In 17-ORD-120, that office admonished the University of Louisville for largely ignoring Ms. Howard’s request — not to mention its statutory duty — while its records custodian served as a juror, forcing Ms. Howard to file the first of her 2017 appeals against the university to dislodge the records.
Amidst the fallout from the June release of a forensic audit that disclosed the university’s patent abuse of — and disregard for — the Open Records Act, the Center for Open Government marveled at the university’s audacity in a July blog, assigning the university a failing mark for noncompliance with the requirements of the Act in ignoring Ms. Howard’s request.
A few short months later, Ms. Howard was compelled to file two more appeals from the university’s failure to respond to separate requests for public records.
The records custodian’s excuse on these occasions? She was on vacation. Apparently, the university was blissfully unaware of multiple open records decisions declaring that the absence of the agency’s custodian does not relieve the agency of its statutory duty to issue a final response to an open records request within three business days of its receipt.
And apparently, in its well-staffed administrative offices the university could find no alternate “custodian” to ensure the timely processing of open records requests in the absence of its official custodian.
The Office of the Attorney General was having none of the university’s lame excuses, and on September 25 issued two open records decisions, 17-ORD-193 and 17-ORD-194, again sternly rebuking the university for its repeated violations. Unfortunately, the office’s staff can do no more under the existing statutory framework. But this pattern of noncompliance is no laughing matter and evidence of such a pattern, if presented to a court, might very well result in the imposition of monetary penalties.
No, we are not dealing with one year delays in the production of records. Instead, we are dealing with patterns of university conduct that undermine the public’s right to know. And at a time when the university can ill-afford to do so, that conduct further erodes the public’s trust.
As we observed in a June op-ed, although “delays in producing public records by state and local agencies in Kentucky may pale in comparison to delays at the federal level [and in some other states, they] are no less offensive to the principle that ‘the value of information is partly a function of time.’”
And there is nothing funny about that.