FOIA Request Reaches Climax at Sheridan City Hall
The first question Richard asked me: "Have they cuffed you yet?"
Every day as a reporter in Arkansas, I meet resistance.
On Wednesday, resistance went to another level. I dare say, the Dark Side.
As a reporter, I've sent in numerous Freedom of Information requests to federal agencies all the way down the political food chain to school boards and mayors of towns with populations less than 1,000 people.
A few months ago, I met Sheridan Mayor Cain Nattin after sending my first FOIA request to city hall. Nattin, who is in his first year as mayor, greeted me cordially and openly. He even told me no formal FOIA request was needed and that his office was open, transparent and ready to assist anyone in the public with records. In a request a few weeks ago for documents, we had an email back and forth about documents. He’s never charged me a fee though — until today.
Recently, I asked for a comment for a story concerning Sheridan's water. Nattin never responded. I even asked Nattin for comment concerning a positive story about the town. He never responded.
Last week, I sent an official request for public documents to Nattin. In fairness, in my request, I did not ask for digital copies of those records.
On Tuesday, I received confirmation that my record request was complete and I could pick them up at any time. In that email, I was told I would be charged $22.30.
Being a busy reporter and focused not solely on Sheridan, today, Wednesday, my schedule was free to retrieve the documents from Nattin.
As a result of my previous water story, I received a “tip” of other potentially related documents that may not have not been captured by my previous request.
Because of high gas prices and cost of travel along with the new added fees associated with the records request, I sent a secondary request related to the “tip” asking that those documents be sent digitally or be made available for me to retrieve this afternoon.
A custodian of record does have the right to charge a fee not exceeding the actual cost of duplication. Paper and ink are apparently expensive in Sheridan.
Around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday I arrived at Sheridan City Hall. Because of a recent interview I had with another reporter, who relies heavily on video, I decided I would do a Facebook Live and give the public an inside look of what I do as a reporter.
I was immediately greeted by a woman ordering me not to let her dogs escape from the lobby of City Hall. She introduced herself as the mayor’s mother who I had never met. During our conversation the live stream signal stopped. You can see the exchange here:
I paid in cash and asked the city hall receptionist for a receipt. See invoices and receipts below. The total: $27.80.
With documents in hand, as I was leaving, I dropped a five dollar bill. The mayor's mother ran out to return it. I thanked her and I was on my way.
I drove down the street and parked to look at the documents. A report I requested was not included.
I called City Hall and asked to speak to the mayor. The receptionist said he was not in the office. I explained I was missing a report from the requested documents. I was on hold for several minutes and decided to return to City Hall before they closed.
The Sheridan City Hall closes at 4 p.m. every day.
When I parked, I could see the mayor on the phone in the front office. He remained on the phone as I walked in. You can listen here to what happened next:
Someone in City Hall obviously called the cops. As I walked out of City Hall to my car to leave, I heard sirens from all directions. Multiple officers arrived on the scene. I waited patiently by my car — as I was blocked in — while officers went into City Hall.
When the officers returned, we discussed the events that had just transpired over the documents. An officer told me I could leave.
I will never regret standing up for FOIA. I do hate when any conversation escalates. But as a reporter, I will always fight for the truth.
Who knows what will happen tomorrow? After years of dealing with elected officials and politicians, anything is possible. There will never be a better time than now for you to give us a paid subscription.
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