Seaford violated FOIA law, resident claims this is a pattern

By Lynn R. Parks

The city of Seaford violated the states Freedom of Information Act when it did not correctly advertise its annual planning meeting with the mayor and members of the city council, held Feb. 17. This is according to an opinion from the states Attorney Generals office, responding to a complaint filed by Seaford resident Dan Cannon.

The city violated the FOIA law in two ways, says the AGs opinion, dated July 11. First, it failed to post an agenda for the meeting. Announcements of public meetings are required to include details about what will be discussed at those meetings. While the city did give public notice of the planning session, that notice did not include an agenda.

Second, when Cannon requested an agenda and was given one, it did not include any identification of the substantive issues that would be discussed, the Attorney Generals office wrote. It simply said that there would be opening and closing remarks and noted when breaks and lunch would occur. Under state law, agendas for public meetings have to at least give a general statement of the major issues expected to be discussed.

Minutes for the planning session show that, while no votes were taken, the council members engaged in significant discussions about public issues and fact gathering, the opinion adds. We have determined thatthe public was not properly [notified] of the opportunity to observe the councils discussion of these important topics.

In a statement that he released on Friday, Cannon accused the city of attempting to hide the details of the planning session. As part of its attempt at obfuscation, the city of Seaford failed to follow importantlaws, he said.

The city has told the Attorney Generals office that it will provide more information on agendas for future planning sessions. The next session will be held after the first of the year.

City manager Dolores Slatcher said that a planning session with a detailed agenda may be more structured. At the same time, all of the same information [will be] discussed and opened for all participants to provide input, she said.

Cannons complaint to the Attorney Generals office also said that the city had been similarly negligent in informing the public of annual planning sessions since 2006. That petition was denied: As a general matter, the [Department of Justice] does not considerpetitions alleging FOIA violations that occurred more than six months prior to our receipt of the petition, the opinion says.

In his statement, Cannon said that despite the Attorney Generals refusal to consider his complaint about earlier planning sessions, it is clear that Seaford has been violating FOIA provisions for at least 10 years. For the 2007, 2008 and 2012 planning sessions, there are no public records of any kind Ñ no announcements, no agendas, no minutes. These were clearly secret meetings and wholly contrary to both the letter and the spirit of Delawares FOIA laws.

Speaking by phone Monday morning, Cannon said that he has a 1-inch-thick folder pertaining to the citys violations of the Freedom of Information Act. In 2016, he filed four complaints with the Attorney Generals office. The office agreed with him on two of the complaints, saying that the city hadnt provided timely notice of an April city council meeting, or any notice at all of two city committee meetings.

Cannons two other complaints, that the city had held secret meetings, were based on speculation, the Attorney Generals office said. FOIA requires a complaining party provide substantive proofthat a secret meeting has occurred, the office said in a December opinion.

Cannon said that when he filed his first complaint, in May of last year, he expected the city to sit up and take notice. This should have alerted the city that someone was looking and was prepared to go to the Department of Justice, he said.

Instead, he said, he discovered another problem: that notices, agendas and minutes of meetings of city committees were not being posted. In the last month or so, several months after the Attorney Generals December finding that Cannon was right, I still have had to remind the city to post minutes of committee meetings, Cannon said. The minutes are then posted. But why should I have to remind them?

Slatcher acknowledged that it was the case that city employees posted the minutes after Cannon reminded them to do so. We were short-staffed and absences occurred, she said.

As for his latest complaint, about the planning session, it should have been very clear to the city that they needed to comply with FOIA law in advertising it, Cannon said. This is clearly a pattern.

Cannon said that citizens should be concerned about whether public officials obey the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. When you lie about the little things, what about the big things? he said. When you dont follow the law, with something as simple as complying with FOIA, what else are you doing?

Slatcher had no response to Cannons statements. Mayor David Genshaw did not respond to requests for comment. But in an earlier interview, Genshaw defended the citys brief agenda for its annual planning session. The agenda was deliberately nonspecific, he said.

We hold this planning session every year, Genshaw added. Its our chance to recap what Seaford did last year and what we are going to do next year. It is our biggest opportunity to make the town move forward and I want participants to feel free to throw all kinds of wild ideas out there, to make things better. I dont want people to be stymied; if we have a strict agenda and everybody just keeps repeating the same things theyve been saying, then we will get the same results.

The session is truly meant to be a brain-storming planning session to include the elected officials for input to strategize on what is most important for the city staff to be working on, Slatcher added.

In defending itself to the Attorney General, the city argued that the meetings title, City Planning Session, was sufficient to indicate that the purpose of the meeting was to cover many issues relevant to the city. But the AGs office didnt buy it.

We cannot accept the councils argument that the title of the meeting was sufficient, the opinion says. It is difficult to imagine what, if any, council meeting would not cover issues relevant to the city.

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