Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Transparency Is A Myth In Delaware

Office Of Animal Welfare Office Learns To Fake And Punt From the Best

We've all seen Governor Markell, Senator President Patricia Blevins, and Senator Karen Peterson tout transparency in Delaware, and their claims sure do make the perfect opportunity for one of those pretty photo ops like CAPA did four years ago, doesn't it?

RA RA sis boom bah 

Unfortunately, the reality is so far from what is portrayed by our governor and lawmakers to the public. Transparency in Delaware is selective based on what our state leaders actually want us to see.  If one of our legislators wants to get their friends into an organization's meetings, then they do a FOIA request themselves through the state Attorney General Office like we saw Senator Blevins do not once, but twice to ensure that the first ruling didn't open the doors to the "No-Kill" shelters in our state.  This way I guess the AG office knows that they have permission to enforce FOIA. 

When Citizens To Save Safe Haven wanted the same access to Safe Haven's board meetings and asked Senator Blevins for the same access to Safe Haven's board meetings, that group was blown off and nobody ever gained access to those meetings despite the fact they were getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Kent County under the state mandated dog control, or the millions in taxpayer dollars that were loaned to them by the USDA with the help of our national lawmakers.  In Delaware transparency only happens when those in power have an agenda to accomplish.  

Dangerous Dog Control Panel - The Hidden Transcript

Multiple requests have been made for the minutes / transcript from the first Dangerous Dog Control Panel to happen since CAPA was enacted in 2011.  The hearing was a public meeting that was setup by the Office of Animal Welfare, and as such was posted on the State of Delaware's Public Calendar

The Public Meeting notice says that Public Health (who the Office of Animal Welfare falls under) hosted the meeting and stated the following concerning the meeting being transcribed in lieu of minutes:
"Minutes: All proceedings, except those held in executive session, will be recorded and transcribed by a registered court reporter. " 
Sounds like transparency doesn't it, at least until the transcript is never posted and FOIA requests are denied.  

Here is FOIA language concerning public records:
"(l) "Public record" is information of any kind, owned, made, used, retained, received, produced, composed, drafted or otherwise compiled or collected, by any public body, relating in any way to public business, or in any way of public interest, or in any way related to public purposes, regardless of the physical form or characteristic by which such information is stored, recorded or reproduced." - Title 29, Chapter 100
"(f) Each public body shall maintain minutes of all meetings, including executive sessions, conducted pursuant to this section, and shall make such minutes available for public inspection and copying as a public record. Such minutes shall include a record of those members present and a record, by individual members (except where the public body is a town assembly where all citizens are entitled to vote), of each vote taken and action agreed upon. Such minutes or portions thereof, and any public records pertaining to executive sessions conducted pursuant to this section, may be withheld from public disclosure so long as public disclosure would defeat the lawful purpose for the executive session, but no longer. All public bodies in the executive branch of state government that are subject to the provisions of this chapter and meet 4 or fewer times per year shall electronically post draft minutes of open public meetings, identified as "draft minutes," to the designated State website approved by the Secretary of State within 20 working days after the conclusion of the meeting. Prior to being posted, draft minutes may be distributed to members of the public body who were present at the open public meeting. Draft minutes may continue to be revised and corrected up until final minutes are approved by the public body at an open meeting. All public bodies in the executive branch of state government that are subject to the provisions of this chapter shall electronically post final approved minutes of open public meetings to the designated State of Delaware website approved by the Secretary of State within 5 working days of final approval of said minutes." - Title 29, Chapter 100
Since the meeting transcript was never posted, a state resident has made several attempts at a FOIA request to gain access to the transcript of the meeting.  This resident was in attendance at the public meeting and frustrated by the many inaccurate portrayals of the meeting, especially since she sat near the one owner whose dog was hurt the worst by the dog being reviewed by the panel.  She also felt that it was unfair that the owner had been subjected to the dangerous dog hearing process by an animal shelter, and their lawyer who spent a long evening questioning the details of the attack despite the obvious proof that her dog was harmed so severely. The resident was especially upset by the fact that this dog was under review for attacking other dogs on 2 occasions and managed to injure one person as well during one of the attacks, yet was listed by the shelter as good with dogs and children, despite his historical behavior issues.  This dog didn't fail a temperament test, it attacked. Yet some are so willing to prove "No-Kill" works, that they're willing to place the public and their pets in danger for that agenda.

The Fake

Back in May when the resident made her original FOIA request for the minutes / transcript from the Dangerous Dog Control Panel hearing of May 12, the resident was was told by Jay Lynch, the Deputy Principal Assistant of the DHSS Office of the Secretary, that the minutes would need to be voted on at the next Dog Control Panel meeting.  This seemed strange given that the Public Calendar posting mentioned a transcript rather than minutes, and the fact that a court reporter was in attendance at the meeting.  But the resident accepted Mr. Lynch's word on the subject and patiently waited.  

The Punt

After a couple more requests and delays, Jay Lynch of DHSS provided this reply today. 
"As for the Dog Control Panel meetings, per law, a court stenographer has recorded and transcribed all recent hearings.  Those documents are "owned" by the counties, as the Dog Control Panel falls under Title 9 jurisdiction.  To request a copy of the panel hearing transcriptions, they should contact the county executive office for the county in which the panel hearing was held." - DHSS Office Of The Secretary, 7/22/14 Response to FOIA Request
So apparently the Office of Animal Welfare and DHSS have just spent two months giving this resident the run around to no avail, and even more pathetically have punted the ball into the hands of Sussex County Council.  

It's not like the Secretary of DHSS needed yet another example of her agency's either utter incompetence or outright political games to protect Faithful Friends from the scrutiny of FOIA.  While First State Animal Center has been subjected to at the double FOIA request of Senator Blevins, who is listed as an advisor on the Faithful Friends website, and the many relationships we've seen with that shelter and our Governor's office, it now appears that the new office and their parent agency has already learned the tricks of the trade to avoiding the sunshine of FOIA on behalf of the Senator whose hand picked Animal Welfare Task Force created their new Office of Animal Welfare.  

You would think Ms. Landgraf would have had enough drama since scandals have already plagued her agency in recent months like the Medical Examiner Office fiasco that has made national news and may result in hundreds of prisoners being released due to their agency's incompetence to properly handle evidence, and the recent audit where it was found that her agency used nearly $270,000 of funds from the CDC improperly.  

So the FOIA requests will continue, but in a different venue of Sussex County.  We we suspect the county will be like deer in headlights and wonder why the state has dropped this mess into their laps, but if all else fails we will look to the media for assistance and the state and county can play toss the ball with the press.  The press knows all too well that if the state is trying to hide information, then state leaders must have something they want to hide.

Given this obvious lack of cooperation on a pretty basic FOIA request to the State of Delaware, I think the pretty photo op at the top misrepresents any true advances in transparency.  While we know that Nathan Winograd speaks nonsense when he talks about pet overpopulation being a myth and claims of CAPA being any kind of shelter standards since it has no REAL standards, but more importantly we also know far too well that TRANSPARENCY IN DELAWARE IS A MYTH.  

So this picture more accurately portrays the BS that our state officials are shoveling us regarding transparency in Delaware. Given what we've seen in the last several years, I wouldn't expect to see open government in Delaware anytime in the near future, at least not without a major clean out during elections.