Black: The Voice’s FOIA requests cost Town almost $70K

BLYTHEWOOD – Speaking before town council last Thursday morning prior to a 9 a.m. budget workshop, Nexsen Pruet attorney David Black blamed thousands of dollars of the Town’s legal expenses on FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests filed by The Voice in connection with two lawsuits the Town is involved in with MPA Strategies marketing firm.

“The Town has incurred – just from my law firm alone – almost $70,000 in legal expenses due to FOIA …much of that is because of the FOIAs from Ms. [Barbara] Ball,” Black said, gesturing toward The Voice’s publisher who was sitting behind him and to the right.

“I have never seen a town receive so much FOIA as I have seen the Town of Blythewood has been (sic) receiving from Ms. Barbara Ball over there,” he said, again, extending his arm toward The Voice’s publisher for emphasis.

 “So, if the general public would like to know why the Town is incurring legal expenses, much of that is because of the FOIA’s from Ms. Ball” he said, this time, dramatically turning and pointing to the publisher in Perry Mason fashion as he concluded his charges.

Records show, however, that from January, 2021, until now, The Voice submitted only six FOIA requests to the Town that pertained to the two lawsuits and received 13 pages, 3 RFP’s (Requests for Proposals that were offered to both newspapers free of charge by town officials), and a link to 1,886 documents already gathered and stored for The Country Chronicle’s May 6, 2021 FOIA response, so the Town should not have been charged a second time when those same documents were sent to The Voice.

While Mr. Black offered no proof to back up his ‘almost $70,000’ claim, records obtained by The Voice show that the Town was actually invoiced for $20,045.50 by Nexsen Pruet for combined FOIA responses issued to The Country Chronicle ($12,269.00 ) and later to The Voice ($7,776.50) – an exorbitant amount for probably no more than 10 – 12 FOIA requests from the two newspapers.

The cost for an FOIA request is normally paid by the requestor, not the government.

When The Country Chronicle FOIA’d all the Blythewood town council members on May 6, 2021, for certain documents pertaining to MPA on all their phones, computers and other devices, instead of the councilmen submitting their responsive documents as the law requires, Franklin insisted they submit their devices to a third party certified computer forensics expert, Christopher Watkins in Columbia, who would scan the devices, store the data, separate it and prepare it to be reviewed. 

The cost for the service, according to Watkns’ case summary affidavit, can run as high as $500 per device. Since the Freedom of Information Act requires the documents to be provided to the requester at the lowest possible cost, Franklin could not legally require the newspapers to pay such high prices.

On May 27, 2021, The Voice filled an FOIA request for only those documents that The Country Chronicle had requested. When documents have already been assembled for another requestor, the second requestor is usually not charged for searching, only for copying. The Town’ charges for The Voice’s responsive documents should have been minimal.

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