Delaware Superior Court Judge Robert Young ruled that the Camden-Wyoming Sewer & Water Authority must release the financial records it repeatedly refused to disclose because of its belief that it was not a public body subject to the state Freedom of Information Act.
Young's 18-page decision dated Nov. 7 was based on the oral arguments held Oct. 1 for the lawsuit that Attorney General Beau Biden filed to compel the Camden-Wyoming Sewer & Water Authority to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Biden filed suit in Delaware Superior Court for Kent County in August 2011 after the authority denied Wyoming Town Councilwoman/Kent County Comptroller Georgette Williams' two requests for employee salary, overtime and benefits information based on her concern for high sewer & water rates.
Biden's lawsuit followed the Camden-Wyoming Sewer & Water Authority's refusal to comply with Williams' FIOA request for a second time even after the General Assembly passed legislation in the spring of 2011 to force the authority to hand over documents and records per the Freedom of Information Act. Senate Bill 36 was sponsored by State Sen. Brian Bushweller (D-Dover) and cosponsored by State Rep. Don Blakey (R-Camden) after the first time CWSWA refused to honor William's request. The bill flew through the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Jack Markell on April 19, 2011.
The legislation was necessary because the Attorney General's Office had previously ruled the FOIA statute did not extend to the Authority, which was the only such entity in the state, Delaware Department of Justice spokesman Jason P. Miller said in a Wednesday press release.
Young ruled that the Superior Court had jurisdiction to hear such a FOIA case in answer to one of the legal questions raised by the defendant and that the Delaware General Assembly had the power to declare the Authority to be a "public body" for FOIA purposes. In addition, Young ruled that Delaware law "strongly supports" the disclosure of salary information, that CWSWA had a statutory duty to maintain and disclose financial records and that the Office of the Attorney General had the legal right to bring suit on behalf of a citizen denied access to financial records.
The lawsuit against CWSWA was the first time that the Attorney General's Office had filed suit on a behalf of a citizen in a FOIA dispute, Miller said in his press release.
IF YOU GO
WHO Camden-Wyoming Sewer & Water Authority Board
WHAT Next regular meeting
WHEN 7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE 16 S. West Street, Camden
CONTACT (302) 697-6372
However, Camden-Wyoming Sewer & Water Authority attorney Mary Sherlock maintained the authority's argument that employee salaries were not subject to disclosure under the state's Freedom of Information Act based on its interpretation of state law and the previous exemption granted by the Office of Attorney General during the Oct. 1 oral arguments held at the Kent County Courthouse.
Page 2 of 2 - Sherlock, of the Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton law firm, in essence, argued that the state code created the mechanism by which the authority could be created but that the towns of Camden and Wyoming were the actual creators of the Camden-Wyoming Sewer & Water Authority. Moreover, the authority neither received state taxpayer dollars nor local taxpayer dollars from residents of the towns in question, she added. Therefore, it was exempt.
The towns of Camden and Wyoming, whose charters were granted by the state, created the Camden-Wyoming Sewer and Water Authority in 1962.
Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General Ralph K. Durstein III said the "illogical" argument that individual employees' salaries were exempt from state open records law had been thrown out in previous FOIA cases. Moreover, he pointed out that the state Legislature amended code to make it clear that the CWSWA was a public body.
Sherlock also argued that Williams was barred from seeking the records due to holding office as treasurer for the Wyoming Town Council. Durstein balked at that notion and said Williams did not abdicate her constitutional rights as a citizen just because she held public office.
In his ruling, Young sided with state and emphasized that the motive or purpose of a person in seeking records was irrelevant under FOIA.
"Ms. Williams does not lose her rights as a citizen by virtue of holding a public office, a point made exceptionally clear by the United States Supreme Court in a discussion of the federal FOIA," Young wrote in his opinion. "'The identify of the requesting party has no bearing on the merits of his/her FOIA request,'" he said, quoting the Supreme Court.
In a press release, Biden thanked the Superior Court of Delaware for its ruling.
"The law clearly gives Delawareans access to public information about their government," Biden said in a prepared statement. "The Sewer and Water Authority is a public body and the salary information sought by this citizen must be released."
It was not clear yet whether the Camden-Wyoming Sewer & Water Authority would appeal the decision. CWSWA Board President Mark Dyer declined to comment for this article. But, he anticipates there could be sizeable crowd that wants to discuss the matter at the board's next meeting scheduled for Tuesday night.