Information Is Public’s Right

Dear Editor:

Governing by FOIA!

What does FOIA stand for? It stands for Freedom of Information Act, a law that was passed because (in a nutshell) our elected officials were keeping their constituents in the dark about actions they were taking, or deals they were making, that might be controversial, or not in the taxpayer’s best interest. Or in some cases downright unethical, borderline illegal, or poor stewardship of the taxpayer’s dollars.

Supposedly, the filing of an FOIA request is a legal method to obtain access to public documents, and records, that a public entity has refused to provide when a citizen has requested to see them. The first thing that happens when a public entity refuses to cooperate and permit access to public records is, your antenna goes up, you wonder what they have to hide. Well, I’ve been forced to file an FOIA request with the City of Wheeling in an effort to gain access to all of the documents relating to the proposed mid-town parking garage, the land lease memorandum of understanding, and any deals made with the out-of-state developer of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel building. Even after the FOIA request was filed I received very little in the way of the documents I requested. The city recognizes that if they don’t fully comply, the person or persons filing the FOIA must engage an attorney and file an action in the circuit court. Of course, hiring an attorney is not cheap, that is if you can find one in the area that doesn’t claim a conflict of interest. The Wheeling newspapers had to threaten; I’m not sure if they had to file a FOIA request, to obtain public information as it related to the identity of the individuals who sought a vacant council seat. Because Wheeling’s city solicitor has blatantly failed to fully comply with my FOIA request, I’ve filed a complaint with the state attorney general (Patrick Morrisey) and alerted him to Wheeling’s approach in dealing with FOIA requests.

That brings me to the reason for this letter. After hearing rumors about selective enforcement of the fire service fee, and suggestions that some entities were either delinquent, or not required to pay, I decided to follow up by seeking to view those records at the city treasurer’s office. I emailed the city treasurer, then followed up with a couple of telephone calls when my request seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. My last conversation with the treasurer revealed that he had spoken to the city solicitor seeking guidance, and it was his understanding that she was going to reach out to me. Well that hasn’t happened as of Sunday, Feb. 24. It seems locally, and unfortunately, the mayor and city council (your elected representatives), have decided that they should be the sole judge of what information needs to be shared with the taxpayers. Treat them like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and feed them manure).

I think you all recognize that the city manager (like him or not) reports directly to the mayor and city council. I believe that the other department heads within the city serve at the will and pleasure of the city manager, i.e., solicitor, police chief, fire chief, public works director, treasurer, etc. One must assume that if these individuals are not providing an adequate response to requests for public information, and are forcing the use of FOIA requests, it is being done with the complete approval of every one of the members of city council and the mayor. Again, my question. What do they have to hide? What do they want to keep from the public eye?

Wake up, guys, it’s the people’s business, it’s public information and you have no right, and in fact you have an obligation, to be forthcoming in all matters that deal with the functions of city government. An FOIA request should not be needed if your elected officials are acting in your best interest. Something smells when you have to file an FOIA request to learn what’s really going on. Secrecy only leads to suspicion. I leave you with this thought: An accomplice to bad government is indifference by the public.

Hope springs eternal!

J. Jacobs

Wheeling

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