Monday, September 24, 2007
What's the big secret? Part 2
Last week I posted something about the problems members of the media have faced with obtaining public records from civil servants. Before the week was out, I was met with a brand new excuse from an executive director of a government agency who didn't want to give me a copy of a feasibility study on bringing water to a new waste coal power plant being developed in Washington County, Pa. In a nutshell, the executive director of the Washington County Conservation District denied my request because he didn't think I would be able to understand the report. Here's how it went:
Gary Stokum, executive director of the conservation district office, appealed to a reporter with the Observer-Reporter to “be reasonable and use a little common sense” when he denied the newspaper a copy of the Erie Langeloth Francis mines report Friday.
“I have no idea what it costs to copy that report,” said Stokum, adding that the state Department of Environmental Protection had given him the impression that he does not have to provide copies of reports the agency generates.
Stokum said it would take a geologist to correctly interpret the report, and that it might be “misconstrued” and reported inaccurately in the newspaper if he wasn’t present to explain the document to a reporter.
“What good is it to you if you don’t understand it?” he said.
Ron Ruman, spokesman for the DEP in Harrisburg, said Friday afternoon that he also would investigate the newspaper’s complaint that it was unable to obtain a copy of the report.
Stokum’s salary is paid with taxpayer money, but he is not technically a county employee, said Washington County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns. County conservation districts are funded through a variety of sources, including money from the state Department of Agriculture.
Burns said he paid Stokum a personal visit to explain the county’s liberal open records policy Friday afternoon after becoming alerted to the difficulties people were having with getting a copy of the study.
Burns said it’s not necessary to “run an IQ test” on someone or judge their competence before making copies of public records available to residents.
Stokum then called the newspaper shortly after 3 p.m. Friday to say that the report was at a copying company and would be available to a reporter as early as Thursday.
“Well, you managed to rattle enough chains,” he said.
(The sunshine logo belongs to the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition)