County takes 49 days to yield disaster-plan facts

March 13, 2007

How would Washington County's emergency service agencies respond to a disaster here? We're not sure, but we hope it's faster than the nearly two months it took county officials to comply with a reporter's request to release information about the plan.

County officials' response is disappointing, for two reasons.

The first is that Sunshine Week, a national program to underscore the importance of open government and freedom of information, has been going on since 2002. Local governments should be accustomed to this exercise - and dedicated to providing a better response each year.

The second is that, given the history of county emergency- response planning, local officials should be sensitive to the perception that they might be withholding information because the plans are flawed.

In November 2005, Stoyan Russell, the county's emergency planner, revealed that he had written a 49-page interim evacuation plan - a plan that had not been reviewed until September of that year by anyone other than Russell.


The previous version of the plan was only 17 pages long, but was expanded after The Herald-Mail submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the original plan - a request made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

After reading the November interview, then-Commissioner Doris Nipps said that "we have some serious work that needs to be done."

Whether or not the plan was completed, Nipps said portions that were done should be posted on the county's Web site.

In May 2006, Rohrersville resident Daniel Moeller submitted a Freedom of Information request for Washington County's emergency evacuation plan.

It was denied, in a letter that didn't explain that Moeller could have obtained a portion of the plan that didn't reveal things such as "specific security procedures .."

That was much the same response Herald-Mail reporter Dan Dearth got when he sought the disaster-response plan. Certain security procedures must first be removed, officials said.

It seems reasonable to withhold certain items - radio frequencies that would be used during a disaster, for example. But as we have said, having a disaster plan and not telling citizens about it is as bad as having no plan at all.

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