Package of Bills Would Strengthen Delaware’s FOIA Statute

DOVER – Democratic lawmakers filed four pieces of legislation Tuesday designed to increase transparency in government and strengthen Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act.

The measures would address posting of meeting minutes, mailed FOIA requests, publishing of annual reports and education of FOIA coordinators. Rep. Ed Osienski said that the bills collectively will strengthen the First State’s FOIA statute and improve citizen access to public information.

Rep. Osienski is sponsoring House Bill 323, which would require that annual or biennial reports published by various Executive Branch public bodies be posted online on one central website. The bill also states that public bodies would meet their duties to provide copies of reports to state government officials by posting the reports online and informing them of where and when it is available, thus cutting down on the cost of printing dozens of copies of reports.

“In some cases, Delaware does a great job providing information to the public, but can and should do more to make it easier for people to find that information,” said Rep. Osienski, D-Newark. “By putting all annual reports on one central website, it becomes one-stop shopping for the press and public instead of having to hunt around or call state agencies or groups.

“This will also do away with paper reports. Right now, if I have a paper copy of a report and leave it in my Dover office on a Thursday, I’m not going to be able read it until I go back on Tuesday. Posting reports online mean I can pull it up on my phone or computer anywhere or anytime.”

House Bill 320, sponsored by Rep. Kim Williams, would require public bodies that meet four or fewer times per year to post draft meeting minutes online within 10 working days of the end of the meeting. Currently, a group that only holds annual meetings is not required to post meeting minutes until they have been approved, which would happen a full year later. Under the bill the public body chair or director would approve the draft minutes to be posted.

“The idea that in 2014 meeting minutes for a public body might not be available for three, six or even 12 months is just senseless to me,” said Rep. Williams, D-Marshallton. “The public has a right to know about these meetings, and they shouldn’t have to wait an unacceptable amount of time. By posting draft minutes, we are striking a balance between keeping the public informed and giving the group time to write and review accurate minutes to be shared.”

House Bill 322, sponsored by Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, would correct an error from a previous FOIA bill. Passed in 2012, Senate Bill 231 removed U.S. mail as an acceptable way to file a FOIA request. As a result, people submitting FOIA requests via mail could and have had their requests denied.

“Even in the Information Age, some people still rely on old-fashioned mail to communicate,” Rep. Johnson said. “This was a simple oversight when the previous bill was drafted, and we are correcting that by making clear that state agencies and public bodies need to accept FOIA requests sent by U.S. mail.”

Senate Bill 231 in the 146th General Assembly codified a process for FOIA requests and required that state agencies, school districts and local governments designate a FOIA coordinator to receive and process those requests. Some groups, including the Sussex County Association of Towns, have raised concerns about ambiguities in how the FOIA law is administered and have asked for help.

House Bill 321, sponsored by Rep. John Atkins, would add an educational component to Delaware’s FOIA law, requiring the Attorney General’s office to publish a manual and hold an annual training seminar for FOIA coordinators.

“I’ve heard from towns in my district and throughout Sussex County that they need guidance with FOIA,” said Rep. Atkins, D-Millsboro. “Many of these are small towns with limited resources, and FOIA requests can be burdensome. All they want to do is get it right and be consistent. Having a manual with all the information in hand will answer their questions up front and help them follow the law.”