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Supervisor counters by handing off FOIL requests to town clerk

ELIZABETHTOWN Town Supervisor Noel Merrihew has passed the responsibility of handling public information requests to the town clerk, saying the sheer number of them has become daunting to him. He will now look for a budget transfer of $4,000 to compensate Town Clerk Deborah Brooks for the extra work. That move is expected during the September meeting of the town board. The decision came in response to five separate Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests issued by Elizabethtown residents Malcolm Martin and Harry Gough, asking for documents regarding fuel usage at the Cobble Hill Golf Course and the expenses and revenues recorded from logging operations conducted at the towns 800-acre resource management area on Roscoe Road. These topics surfaced early at the Aug. 19 Town Board meeting when Margaret Bartley and David Mace delivered public comments, questioning the towns policy regarding firewood produced from logging and urging the town to release information about fuel usage. I think that this is getting to be a bit of a travesty, said Mace. The fact is, town government has an obligation to keep records and to make those records available for public inspection. That is part of the law. Mace added, A reasonable person can only begin to conclude one of two things; that it is a combination of laziness... and arrogance... or that there really is, in my opinion, something to hide. While reviewing correspondence, Councilman Phil Hutchins brought the FOIL requests into question. Merrihew noted that at least one of the requests asked for documents going back to 2001, the year Merrihew first came into office. [They] involved documentation, all original copies, pertaining to any fuel usages, all logging activities, all firewood, all wood products; those sorts of things, explained Merrihew. Later in the evening, Merrihew recommended Brooks assume the responsibility of FOIL requests. Merrihew stated that, as the towns information officer, he has been trying to fulfill the FOIL requests in addition to his other duties as supervisor. Noting that he felt unable to address so many requests for information, he asked that the Town Clerk take on the responsibilities of producing the documents. Merrihew added that he planned to ask for a budget transfer at the next September meeting to help pay for the extra time the Town Clerk and her deputies would need to devote to copying documents for the FOIL requests $4,000 to start. It does necessitate bringing in somebody from the outside, said Merrihew. Just the idea of producing all the records that we have in all these boxes from the years 2001 to 2008 may not sound like its a foreboding task, but you can believe me, it is. Its hundreds and hundreds of documents. Hutchins questioned if computer-generated spreadsheets summarizing the invoices and receipts would satisfy the FOIL demands, but Merrihew said only original documents would do. Merrihew said he has been reluctant to give direct access to town records, which he said are filed in a very specific way. The idea that we could allow someone uninformed to be able go through those and put them back in an unorderly way would just compromise when the state agencies do come up and demand from us this orderliness, Merrihew stated. Merrihew later gave his explanation of the towns policy regarding the sale of firewood, noting that it is a surplus byproduct of the towns resource management practices, which have been in place since before he became supervisor. Since Ive been in office, theres been a limit of two face cords per resident landowner per year, he stated, explaining that residents can request to be added to the list of firewood buyers and have access to the wood on a first-come-first-serve basis. If it is perceived that this is an unfair practice or there is too much upcry, the public comes forward and says we should get out of that business, [then] we will get out of that business, Merrihew said.

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