Did the Utica School District Overcharge a Member of the Public for a FOIL?
During a Utica School Board meeting late last year, board leadership admitted that a local businessman was aggravating the district with his consistent emails and Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Now, the businessman, Howard Potter, is asking why it took so long for the district to respond to him, and why he was overcharged for the documents he requested.
Potter, who owns A&P Master Images with his his wife, was specifically mentioned during the board meeting by President Lou Lapolla as a person who has overwhelmed the district with questions, comments and FOILS. One of those FOILS was requested back in December of 2021 and it wasn't until last week that the district finally followed through on some of the documents. Recently, in order to receive documents from the district, Potter was required to pay a bill for $304.98, which he paid in full. He was charged 25-cents per copy for a total of $41.50 and $263.40 for the labor an employee took to "prepare a copy of the documents" for a total off $304.98.
Kristen O'Neill, the Deputy Director of the State Committee on Open Government told WIBX on Tuesday that the school district most likely should not have charged the labor costs for searching, or the labor costs for copying when it comes to documents up to 9" by 14" in size. She said, if the request is for something other than copies, such as a video and the work is in excess of 2-hours, the entity can charge hourly salary attributed to the lowest paid employee for the time used to satisfy the request. Public institutions can also outsource the work for FOILS that include videos, and charge that amount, such as in the case where a video is requested and needs to be reproduced. However, if the FOIL request is for documents, the person requesting the documents can only be charged 25-cents per copy.
Shoshanah Bewlay, the Executive Director of New York's Committee on Open Government said that today, most documents are stored electronically and emailed when foiled, and no costs are associated with the document delivery. In the case of Howard Potter, all off the documents were paper copies on sheets that were 8.5 inches by 11, which should total no more than $41.50. The law would not permit a labor charge, even if the documents had to be redacted.
Potter, who was on WIBX via telephone while the interview with O'Neill was being conducted, responded with an email to the school district requesting a refund. He said that it's been 2-days since he sent the email and so far, he hasn't received a response.
Potter email to the Utica School District:
"I was on WIBX today and they had a guest who works for the NYS FOIL Department and she explained to me that the district can only charge for the paper copies below. Can you please let me know when I could expect a refund for the $263.40? I would also suggest some formal training or classes on the NYS FOIL law to avoid anyone else from being told the wrong information or over charged. Thank you all for your time on this matter. -Howard Potter"
Potter has made at least 5 FOILS over the last 4 months in regards to budgetary issues, expenditures, bus safety, and COVID expenditures, among other topics.
Here's a FOIL from December 8, 2021
To: Records Access Officer
Re: Freedom of Information Law Request for Records
Under the provisions of the New York Freedom of Information Law, Article 6 of the Public Officers Law, I hereby request the records for all expenses for the CTE addition , CTE Research, CTE emails from any and all staff, any meeting minutes that include the CTE project, and including board members emails that talk about the CTE project, by the Utica School District between January 1st, 2020 - December 7th, 2021. I request these records include vendor, quantities, type of product and date of purchase, emails, and anything else related to it.
As you know, the Freedom of Information Law requires that an agency respond to a request within five business days of receipt of a request. Therefore, I would appreciate a response as soon as possible and look forward to hearing from you shortly. If for any reason any portion of my request is denied, please inform me of the reasons for the denial in writing and provide the name and address of the person or body to whom an appeal should be directed.
I would request that these records be emailed to me.
WIBX has reached out to and is awaiting for a response from the school's Board of Education Clerk Kathy L. Hughes, as well as a request for a comment from Superintendent Bruce Karam.