Interesting. Little Rock School Superintendent Dexter Suggs announces here a new Freedom of Information Act page.
At the click of a button, the core features of this impressive webpage will:
· Increase the user’s knowledge regarding State law that governs compliance with FOIA requests
· Provide answers to frequently asked questions about the FOIA
· Provide access to specific public requests
I call B.S. on the grandiose verbiage.
The page contains three things: 1) a link to the FOIA; 2) a link to a booklet compiled by the attorney general, governor and various media groups with a Q&A on the FOIA, and 3) a searchable list of all FOI requests made to the district.since April 24. Nos. 1 and 2 are readily available all over the web. No. 3 is, I think, the real point of the exercise.
I’d submit this page is a pretext to showcase how much work attorney and state Rep. John Walker creates for the School District with FOI requests, some of them requiring extensive research.
Of the 49 requests in the archive, 39 were made by Walker. And one of the 10 was a request by former School Board member Melanie Fox for a list of all Walker’s and all other FOI requests. His questions have long rankled leaders of the district, who see them as, at worst, harassment, and, at least, time taken from other tasks.
The usual critics LOVE this page, of course. It’s perfectly legal. It would also be perfectly legal to create a page listing travel expenses and meals and hotels charged to the School District by administrators; or a page with leave time taken by administrative employees; or a page compiled, in descending order, of the top 100 salaries in the district, with name, title and pay and perks. Or how about a list of all district contractors, in order of expenditure? Or how about this? The superintendent post all his internal e-mails that don’t deal with exempt subjects? These are just a few web-friendly projects the district could undertake in the name of accountability.
John Walker can defend himself. And he is unlikely to be deterred from his mischief by any heightened public inspection this page might bring of his activities. It might even serve to encourage him.
But I have a small concern. Yes, anybody can always ask any public agency for all FOI requests it has received. I’ve done it on occasion for a variety of reasons. But does the fact that an FOI request will be posted on the Internet for the whole world to see serve as any sort of deterrent to a parent or student with a fair question they’d rather not advertise to the world? I’m mostly thinking out loud. But my thinking is related to the sort of issues that have arisen at courthouses around the country. It’s one thing for a divorce file, say, to be open to inspection to a person who presents himself at the county courthouse and asks for a file. It’s another thing — at least in the minds of some — to leave that same information open to midnight trollers from Saudi Arabia to Salt Lake City. Heck, somebody might not want it to be instantly and universally known that they had asked for a list of John Walker’s FOI requests.
Open records mean open records. More sunshine is more sunshine. But the selectivity of this particular project nonetheless leaves me skeptical about the stated motivation.
What do you think?
PS — Please note that it took a great deal of time to set up this webpage and to create the record of Walker’s FOI requests. Please note too, that the district doesn’t appear to have provided the information it assembled for Walker, only his questions. Impressive.
I just noticed that Melanie Fox’s request is for ALL FOI requests back to 2005 and she wants a count of how many pages of information were required in response, along with the cost in fulfilling the request in personnel time. So there could be a good bit more to come.
UPDATE: I talked further to Fox about this.
She said this grew out of her concern some years ago about the effort the district put into complying. She said the format now in place was discussed some years ago, but put aside. She thinks Suggs is now moving on some issues that had languished.