City of Griffin refusing to release public records to The GRIP

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

The city of Griffin is refusing to release public records to The GRIP.

After filing formal complaints with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office alleging the city of Griffin has violated numerous provisions of the Open Records Act, The GRIP received notification from Griffin Chief of Staff Jessica Whatley-O’Connor stating access to records is being denied.

In an email dated July 18, O’Connor stated, “In preparing our response to the complaint you filed with the Attorney General’s office, we found over $500, $523.40 to be exact, in responses prepared for you that you have not paid. Therefore, pursuant to OCGA 50-18-71, as well as an opinion of the Attorney General’s office, we will not respond to any further requests until the amount has been paid in full. We will also proceed with a collection action for the costs owed to the City and our taxpayers.”

The complaints referenced by O’Connor are currently being reviewed by Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo and include allegations the city is violating the Open Records Act by charging for records that were emailed rather than produced in hard copy; by refusing to allow records to be duplicated by the requester’s personal equipment; by failing to respond to a request for records; and by refusing to produce records within the time frame mandated by law.

Colangelo wrote two letters to City Attorney Drew Whalen, each detailing two complaints. Whalen requested, and was granted, an extension to July 30 to respond to both letters from the Attorney General’s Office. Whalen responded to the first letter by that extension date, but no response to the second was forthcoming.

Whalen’s letter stated in part, “The City of Griffin has investigated the complaint filed with your office by Sheila Mathews. It is our position this complaint has no merit and should be dismissed. In reviewing the Open Records requests filed by Ms. Mathews over the past year, it is apparent that she is abusing the law and unwilling to conform to its spirit and intent.”

In response to two of the complaints, Whalen said, “Your letter sets forth two specific accusations, which I will address in order. First, you question the authority of the City charging Ms. Mathews for scanning documents maintained by the City Police Department in a proprietary digital format, some of which contained data subject to redaction. In order to provide these records to Ms. Mathews in PDF format, as she requested, the city had to print a hardcopy, make the required redactions, where necessary, and then scan it into PDF. Our position is the law allows us to charge the cost of making the hardcopy, whether it produces the record in that format or not.
Second, you raise an issue whether the videos, which Ms. Mathews viewed on a computer terminal in City offices that is set up for that purpose were open to copying on her personal computer. If after viewing the records the requester desires a copy, it will be produced at the allowed cost. The City’s position is that Ms. Mathews felt she should be able to view these files without charge.”

His letter went on to address the city of Griffin’s interpretation of the law.
“The law allows the City to recoup a reasonable charge for the search, retrieval, and, if applicable, redaction of such record(s), but the law does not allow her to view records before deciding she wants copies and avoid all charges for search, retrieval, and redaction,” Whalen wrote.

Whalen then directly addressed The GRIP Publisher Sheila Mathews.

“Ms. Mathews evidently feels she should not have to pay for records and manipulates her requests in a manner to minimize charges, if not avoid them altogether. If she requests a copy, it will either be in hardcopy at 10 cents per page, or on a DVD at $1.00 per disk. In case of the latter, the nominal charge of $1.00 per DVD is extremely reasonable given the fact an employee’s time will always be involved in transferring the data onto a disk, Whalen wrote. “Since Ms. Mathews file (sic) her complaint in this matter, the frequency of filing Open Records requests with the City of Griffin has increased exponentially. Also since that time, the City has gone back through its files and discovered Ms. Mathews currently owes over $500 for requests that have gone unpaid. She has since been notified that the City will not respond to any future Open Records requests until this arrearage is paid in full.”

Upon receipt of O’Connor’s email, Mathews requested an itemized list of the charges city officials allege are outstanding.

Griffin Assistant Open Records Officer Teresa Watson, who also serves as executive secretary to City Manager Kenny Smith, provided a spreadsheet itemizing the alleged $523.40 in outstanding Open Records fees.

Altogether, 11 separate Open Records requests were cited with six dating from 2018, four from 2017 and one from 2014, with individually-assessed fees ranging from $1.80 to $164.01, specifically:

Requested July 9, 2018, with a response date of July 12, 2018 – Phone records with an assessed fee of $30.89

Requested July 9, 3018, with a response date of July 12, 2018 – Written communications with an assessed fee of $39.52

Requested July 9, 2018, with a response date of July 12, 2018 – Written communications with an assessed fee of $32.37

Requested May 29, 2018, with a response date of May 29, 2018 – Email communications with an assessed fee of $65.32

Requested April 11, 2018, with a response date of April 11, 2018 – Reports with an assessed fee of $1.80

Requested Jan. 23, 2018, with a response date of Jan. 25, 2018 – Reports and recordings with an assessed fee of $44.04 (Not included in the $523.40 total is the city of Griffin’s $110 fee for the requested recordings. This assessed fee of $44.04 represents only the requested reports.)

Requested Oct.9, 2017 with a response date of Oct. 9, 2018 – Recordings with an assessed fee of $30

Requested Aug. 1, 2017, with a response date of Nov. 28, 2018 – Documents and recordings with an assessed fee of $85.05

Requested Jan. 23, 2017, with a response date of Jan. 26, 2017 – Documents and reports with an assessed fee of $164.01

Requested Jan. 17, 2017, with a response date of Feb. 2, 2017 – Documents and recordings with an assessed fee of $20.50

The final citation pertains to a November 2014 request for documents. When specific information was requested pertaining to this demand, Watson said, “As for Line 13, that was a request handled by Judy Flournoy prior to my arrival at the City. I do not find an original request from you, nor a formal response from the City for the 99 pages of documentation and I am unaware of the circumstances … I just have handwritten notes that accompany the 99 pages of responsive documentation (and the notes are attached), and a computer copy of a City response that was emailed to you on November 5 at 3:10 p.m. that appears to be related to the requested material.”

After researching the city’s allegation of nonpayment, The GRIP contends those fees are not lawful and that the city’s refusal to produce public documents is an ongoing illegal action.

Among those 11 fees O’Connor and Whalen allege Mathews owes are numerous factors indicating the monies are not owed, including the unlawful assessment of fees by the city of Griffin and repeated violations of the multiple aspects of the Open Records Act for which the city is now attempting to collect fees.

Whalen concluded his letter to Colangelo by stating, “The City of Griffin strives to be transparent with all requests, as the law in form and spirit intends. We cannot dedicate public employees to spending their entire employment fulfilling records requests to the detriment of the job for which they were hired.

The City welcomes the opportunity to mediate this complaint through your office. We will bring to the mediation a plethora of files showing the frequency with which Ms. Mathews has filed Open Records requests and demonstrating the good faith in which the City has always responded to her requests.”

The GRIP also welcomes the opportunity to mediate these matters.

Publisher’s note: Due to the city’s refusal to release public records, The GRIP is being denied responses to a number of outstanding Open Records requests. Some of these records pertain to Internal Affairs investigations conducted in response to formal complaints filed against Griffin Police Department Chief Mike Yates by The GRIP Publisher Sheila Mathews. The basis of those complaints, as well as the Internal Affairs findings, will be reported beginning in the next print edition of The GRIP.

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Comments

  1. Derek Myers says:

    Take them down, Shiela! Let me know if we can be any support.
    Derek Myers
    Interim Editor-In-Chief General Manager (C): 740.463.0029 (O): 614.416.6087
    >

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