Ken Parris, Candidate for Mayor in Washington, Files Open Records Violation Complaint with Attorney General

Published on 25 September 2023 at 15:30

Ken Parris, Washington candidate for mayor, filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office on September 15, 2023, regarding what he states are violations of the Georgia Open Records Act.

 

According to Parris, On Tuesday August 29, 2023, at 6:33 PM he sent an email to city clerk Wanda Dingler requesting a PDF copy of the City of Washington 2023 budget and the proposed budget for 2024. On the citizen’s access to such records, The Open Records Law states:

 

  • 50-18-70. Legislative intent; definitions

(a) The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government; that open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions. The General Assembly further finds and declares that there is a strong presumption that public records should be made available for public inspection without delay.

 

The law also states that records, when requested are to be provided within three business days. If there is an instance that would impede the production of records within three business days, the person requesting the records is to be notified of the reason for any delay and an estimated time when the documents they requested will be available. According to Parris and emails he provided, he did not receive confirmation from Dingler regarding his request. On September 5th, which was the fourth business day after Parris made the request, he emailed Dingler requesting an update on the status of his request. Parris said he then received, from city administrator Jerry deBin, some financial information but it was not the information he requested.  On September 8th, he emailed Dingler again, this time attaching a document (see below article) that contained additional requests and was more detailed including monthly income statements for 2023 and annual financial statements and independent audit reports for 2021 and 2022. At the bottom of the request he wrote, “Please let me know if you need any additional clarification or information for promptly responding to and fulfilling this Open Records Act Request.” He also asked for confirmation of receipt of the request and thanked Dingler for handling his request. Dingler did confirm receipt of the request, the same day.

 

However, Parris said he still did not receive the requested documents so on September 13th he again emailed Dingler stating it had been “over two weeks” since he had submitted the request and asking why the documents had not been provided. He also decided to file  a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General.

 

On September 18th Parris received an email from Jerry deBin, in which deBin said the past several weeks “have been very hectic for our lean staff” because of the election qualifying period and the unexpected special election qualifying in addition to normal day to day operations and the September city council meeting. deBin listed his understanding of the requested documents Parris asked for and mentioned “you were not charged a fee” for the revenue and expenditure report Parris had requested. He also told Parris that the “2024 budget and/or pro forma…does not exist and will be developed in the coming weeks.”

 

That same day Parris replied to the email from deBin thanking him for the “updated financial information for 2023 I had requested 20 days ago.”  He also said that “information that should be publicly and readily available is still being withheld.”

 

On September 19th deBin emailed Parris and told him there would be a cost to providing the 2021 independent audit he had requested. According to Parris, deBin wrote “I am the staff person most suitable to respond to your records requests.” He stated this was because Dingler is still getting comfortable with the software and records systems.

 

deBin also wrote “I estimate it will require 1.75 hours of my time to fulfill your request for the 2021 annual financial audit. The 2022 audit is underway but not completed. It can be made available once it is finalized. There are no pro forma documents at this point, but I will notify you when they begin to come in. And I will provide you with a cost estimate to provide those records.” The pro forma documents are in reference to the proposed 2024 budget, according to Parris.

 

deBin also wrote “As for the pdf copy of the 2021 audit, there is no charge for the first quarter-hour to gather and send it. Estimated total cost is $86.54 (1.75 hours - .25 hours x $57.69 = $86.54). Please confirm that you wish for us to continue”.

 

Open Records Law states the following regarding charges for providing records:

 

An agency may impose a reasonable charge for the search, retrieval, redaction, and production or copying costs for the production of records pursuant to this article. An agency shall utilize the most economical means reasonably calculated to identify and produce responsive, nonexcluded documents. Where fees for certified copies or other copies or records are specifically authorized or otherwise prescribed by law, such specific fee shall apply when certified copies or other records to which a specific fee may apply are sought. In all other instances, the charge for the search, retrieval, or redaction of records shall not exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest paid full-time employee who, in the reasonable discretion of the custodian of the records, has the necessary skill and training to perform the request; provided, however, that no charge shall be made for the first quarter hour.

 

Parris said it seems unusual it would take such an amount of time to simply send a document that has already been compiled by an independent entity. The city paid for the audit and auditors typically present the results in an already organized and easily readable fashion. He also pointed out again, the citizens have paid for this audit report and by law, have a right to access it. There shouldn't be time required beyond 15 minutes to "gather" it.

 

On the proposed budget for 2024 that Parris requested, deBin wrote “It is in the early stages of preparation. It will be announced in the newspaper around the third week of November and then made available at City Hall.”

 

Parris also finds it concerning that deBin claims there are not yet documents related to the proposed 2024 budget to review and that it is in the “early stages of preparation.” According to the Georgia Municipal Association, an organization that offers legislative advocacy and consultation to Georgia municipalities, a city’s budget process should begin about four to five months prior to the budget being adopted. The process should begin with the budget officer distributing forms to all departments to be completed with proposed salaries and other budget requests and returned to the budget officer. The needs of departments are to then be reviewed and revenue and expenditure plans are prepared. About six weeks before adoption, the proposed budget is to be reviewed by the city council and should be made available to the public to view.  If the city of Washington is following these guidelines, it does seem unusual there are no documents at all, to be provided to Parris or anyone who requests them.

 

On the topic of partial records, the Open Records Law states they are to be made available if they exist:

 

In those instances where some, but not all, records are available within three business days, an agency shall make available within that period those records that can be located and produced. In any instance where records are unavailable within three business days of receipt of the request, and responsive records exist, the agency shall, within such time period, provide the requester with a description of such records and a timeline for when the records will be available for inspection or copying and provide the responsive records or access thereto as soon as practicable.

 

I contacted both Jerry deBin and Wanda Dingler requesting an interview or statement regarding Ken Parris’ request and complaint. I also asked for the policy in place when citizens request records that are to be made publicly available via the Open Records and Open Meetings Act. Jerry deBin replied that he had “no comment.”  I have not heard back from Wanda Dingler so it is unclear if there is a policy in place to assure compliance with the Open Records Law.

Parris told me he wanted the financial documents because as someone running for mayor, he believes it is essential to know the financial status of the city. He said that as a business owner, he knows how important the financial health of an organization is and if responsible for the well being of the city, he needs to have a clear understanding of the current state of financial affairs.

When I asked him why he filed the complaint with the Attorney General, he said he believes there are "problems with transparency" in  government in Washington and this experience and others with requesting records that should be readily available, is very concerning.  He said, “If elected mayor, I will make sure every citizen will be able to view financial records because we are the shareholders of the city.” He also said, “People who don’t have things to hide, don’t hide things” and that if elected, the yearly budget process will be a six-month process with citizens having the ability to be part of the discussion along the way.”

Some of you may recall coverage in the past regarding issues with compliance with Georgia Open Records and Open Meetings Law. I contacted the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia Law School and they sent a letter to the mayor, city council, city administrator and city attorney offering education so the city could become more aware of the obligation to be compliant with the law. To date, there has not been a response to that offer.

On September 20, 2023, the Office of the Attorney General responded to Parris' complaint in a letter to City Attorney Barry Fleming. They stated the matter of the complaint as Parris described to them and outlined the requirements by law, to provide records. They also offered their mediation program to assist in resolving disputes. They requested a response within ten days. The letter is available to view below.

 

Reported by Michelle Chaffee

 

Parris Open Records Request To Dingler
PDF – 132.0 KB 207 downloads
23 9 20 Danna Yu Attorney General Office Letter To Barry Fleming 1
PDF – 112.9 KB 212 downloads

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Comments

Kathryn Harris
10 months ago

City atty Barry Fleming should resign as he was asked to do by vote of the City Council over 2 years ago. He is milking Washington for legal fees.

Sherri Bailey
10 months ago

All local government with a budget over $1 million must upload their audits and budgets to CVIOG website. You can find that information here: https://ted.cviog.uga.edu/financial-documents/budget_docs_view?og_group_ref_target_id%5B%5D=723&field_fiscal_year_value%5Bmin%5D%5Byear%5D=2020&field_fiscal_year_value%5Bmax%5D%5Byear%5D=2023&field_report_type_target_id%5B%5D=24

And more information can be found here: https://ted.cviog.uga.edu/financial-documents/welcome

Ken Parris
10 months ago

Sherri - Thanks for this great information! I am glad to be able to download so easily a PDF copy of the City of Washington Audit from 2021.

It is very concerning though.

If the 2021 Audit was already in this format and so easily accessible, that would seem to imply something more nefarious is going on in my request for this information being ignored then followed by a response of it taking 1.75 hours and $86.54 for me to be able to access it?

Thanks for sharing this great resource in CVIOG!

Now if we can just see a proposed budget for 2024....