Second Judicial Circuit Court Judge Pam Honeycutt awarded former Blytheville City Councilwoman Carol White a total of $186.37 in her Freedom of Information Act case against the city of Blytheville Monday afternoon in Mississippi County Circuit Court.
Honeycutt gave the city 60 days to pay the amount, which includes a $165 filing fee and $21.37 in mailing costs.
White, representing herself, was denied attorneys fees because she incurred no attorney expenses; she tried to recoup her time for working on the case.
White also asked for $100 for phone calls, $25 for trip to Osceola and $100 for office supplies, but didn't have receipts to back up the expenses.
White sought relief from the court because she says it took from June 2011 to Feb. 9, 2012 for the city to give her access to Blytheville Waterworks records that she was entitled to under FOIA. She requested businesses' water records from Jan. 1, 2011 to July 1, 2011.
"As far as whether or not she's satisfied, she said she was given access to all information," Honeycutt said. "So I think this case probably can be dismissed once the final order has been entered."
The judge said the city should have been better prepared to respond to the FOIA request.
"I know that to governments the Freedom of Information Act can be very burdensome because it's actually scary to a lot of them because they're worried, not only about being sued for not providing the information, but they're worried about being sued if they provide information that they shouldn't have provided," Honeycutt said. "I understand that, but at the same time the government is vested with a high responsibility to make sure that they are prepared for these types of requests and they are prepared to provide what's requested. In this case, it shouldn't take a citizen from June of 2011 to February of 2012 to either get the documents or get access to them. In this case it was probably a little fault on both sides because I think there was some confusion about what exactly was requested ... but the city is represented by legal counsel and should have been prepared for this type of request. And I don't believe the city acted diligently in giving her access to the information provided."
She noted the city provided what it was legally obligated to furnish.
"The problem is I don't think the city acted quickly enough," she said.
"It's not really a ruling; it's a piece of free advice," Honeycutt added. "It should be common sense. If somebody makes a request, it needs to be in writing. It doesn't have to be, but it should be in writing."
White seemed happy with the court's ruling.
"I went in just for the cost because I went in to make them honor what they should have," White said. "It's clear to me that the city doesn't operate in good faith. I should not have had to wait until now to get them to pay what I had to make them do to give me access. It's unfortunate that the Courier News didn't go in and ask for that. I don't know if they did that to you. It was quite specific. I question the city saying there was confusion there. There was not confusion. If you read the file it clearly says from Jan. 1, 2011 to July 1, 2011 for businesses, profit and nonprofit so that's very clear."
Blytheville Mayor James Sanders said he believes the city provided the information as quickly as possible, saying White changed her request from the initial one.
"I just think the judge was trying to take the side of the citizens, which is probably the smart way to do it," city attorney Mike Bearden said. "She obviously did not award her what she asked for, but the biggest thing about it is the judge ended the controversy as to whether or not we had met the burden of providing the records. We have done that. She said that. She said this case is over. She may have gotten $170 or whatever it was but we're going to save that much in time for having to mess with producing the records at the water company. We're done."
White and Blytheville Waterworks general manager Gary Phillips were the only two to testify in the two-hour hearing.
White testified she gave a verbal request for water department records for all business, for-profit and nonprofit, in June 2011, and the city was resistant to give her the information.
According to White, Phillips told her he would only give her the information if she specified what records she wanted.
"I told him I didn't want to give that information, I wanted to look at all the files I requested," she said.
Phillips testified that in the beginning he thought she wanted all billing records, including residential, which would have been about 8,000 pages to print, at 10 cents a page, using the Arkansas Municipal League's suggested rate. He added he offered to print all those pages, initially.
Phillips said the city doesn't classify nonprofits in its records so he needed specific names. He said there are numerous nonprofits and he didn't know all of them.
White filed a motion on July 8, 2011 and continuances and a change of judges pushed the actual court appearance to more than a year later -- July 30, 2012.
However, in February, 2012, White and Bearden exchanged letters, seeming to come to an agreement that White would be given an hour a day, five days a week at a computer terminal with a Waterworks employee until she completed her task.
White testified she went into "a very hostile environment" at the water company.
"They would let me see the files, but they were not allowed to say anything," White said.
Phillips testified that FOIA doesn't require officials to give explanations, only the data.
He said White had "access to the entire database," and never indicated she didn't have what she wanted.
Phillips acknowledged he had some concerns about White seeing some personal information that is not covered by FOIA.
"I had some misgivings about those records because in the software that contains those records, when you sit down and do a search for an account, the first thing that pops up is a customer information page, which contains things like a customer's social security number, date of birth, cell phone number, things that are clearly not applicable to FOI," Phillips testified. "We have no way to redact that on the computer screen. That's what was going to take us so long."
He said if the water company had printed out all the records, it could have redacted what was necessary.
During cross examination, Bearden suggested White had certain businesses in mind and they could have just printed those if she wanted.
"At that time, I didn't know which businesses I wanted to see that's why I requested all businesses," White responded.
She said Monday's hearing wasn't about gaining access to more information, it was to gain relief for expenses incurred to take it to the point of Feb. 9, when given access.