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County takes 49 days to fulfill request for documents

March 11, 2007|by DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN - Washington County officials took nearly two months to release information about the county's disaster-response plans after The Herald-Mail made a request to view the documents earlier this year.

The newspaper made the request as part of the Sunshine Week 2007 National Audit.

During the audit, 1,008 adults commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors tested the willingness of public officials across the country to release public documents pertaining to the emergency plans that safety agencies use after disasters.

The Herald-Mail submitted its first request verbally on Jan. 11 at the Washington County Emergency Services office on West Washington Street. Following the audit's protocol, the reporter who made the request did not identify himself as being a reporter or being from the newspaper.

Initially, an official with the emergency services office told the requester that some of the documents could not be viewed publicly or copied. The official said people might use the information to obstruct emergency personnel from responding to a disaster.

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The official said, however, that he would talk to his superiors about the release procedures for such documents.

The requester left his first name and telephone number with the official. The official called shortly afterward, and said a written request for the document had to be filed with the county attorney.

A written request for the county's "Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan" was made Jan. 11 at the county attorney's office. Eight days later, the attorney's office, which had discovered that the requester was a reporter, informed the reporter that there was no document titled "Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan."

The reporter asked the titles of the documents so a more formal request could be made. The county attorney's office provided a list of those titles on Jan. 26.After receiving the list, the requester on Feb. 1 asked to see the county's "Basic Emergency Operations," "Multi-Hazard Mitigation" and "Hazardous Material Response" plans - the official titles provided by the attorney's office.

The attorney's office granted permission to view the documents on March 1, 49 days after the initial request was made.

The reporter viewed the documents March 6 at the attorney's office.

Assistant county attorney Kirk C. Downey said requests to view public documents are granted within 30 days. The 30-day limit was met in this case because the time is considered to have started once the reporter asked for the information by the formal names of the disaster plans.

The amount of time that it took to release the documents also was the result of a need to remove certain information for safety reasons, Downey said.

"We don't want to release information that would jeopardize public safety," Downey said.

A few of the reasons that Downey gave for redacting the information were that it could "facilitate the planning of a terrorist attack" and "endanger the life or physical safety of an individual."

As for whether the documents could be copied, the county attorney's office on Friday said they could - at a price of for $71.55, or 15 cents per page.




Audit timeline



The following is a timeline of how long it took Washington County officials to approve a request to view the county's emergency response documents.

· Jan. 11: First request submitted

· Feb. 1: More specific request submitted

· March 1: Request granted

· Total time: 49 days

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