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Battle over records requests plagues Gettysburg

Written by Dustin B. Levy/Hanover Evening Sun | Dec 5, 2016 8:34 AM
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(Gettysburg) -- Dozens of Right-to-Know requests, stemming from a controversial review of the Gettysburg Borough Police Department, have cost the borough tens of thousands of dollars, according to borough officials.

So far in 2016, addressing the requests has cost the borough more than $32,000 in legal fees and overtime payments in addition to more than 1,500 man hours, Borough Manager Charles Gable said.

Two more requests were filed on Wednesday, from Gettysburg Times publisher Harry Hartman and resident Stephen Hemler. Hartman and Hemler have previously filed Right-to-Know requests this year, as has The Evening Sun.

Hartman and Hemler's nearly identical requests, obtained in an email from Gable, ask for written and electronic correspondence that mentioned their names and was sent to and from Gable, borough staff, Mayor Ted Streeter, past and present council members and attorneys, including the firm the borough uses in labor disputes.

Hartman's request seeks a time period of February 2016 to present, while Hemler's extends to January 2015.

Hartman wants to know if his name is mentioned in reports relating to the police review.

The borough is complying within the five business days the law dictates the government entity has to respond, but the broadness of the request is "challenging and troubling," Gable said.

The council sought the police department review -- at the center of many of the previous requests -- after a video captured by police officer Christopher Folster's body camera was released online in fall 2015. The footage shows Folster using a stun gun to subdue Derek J. Twyman, who police said had refused orders to get out of his car. Twyman was later acquitted of resisting arrest, a success he credited to a review of the footage during his trial.

The review cost more than $10,000 and prompted criticism, including calls for Gable to resign, from members of the public.

The recent requests of correspondence from "borough staff" extends to the police department, Streeter said. With the upcoming deadline, police officers had to spend time to search their email accounts for any pertinent information, including working off-duty and overtime hours.

Forcing officers to sit at their desks instead of patrolling the streets impacts public safety, Gable said.

If an employee finds correspondence related to the request, the borough turns that over to solicitor Harold Eastman's office to determine what information can be released, redacted or legally withheld.

The Pennsylvania Right to Know Law protects certain government records from public view concerning topics such as litigation, real estate and personnel matters.

"The borough has a responsibility to protect the privacy of its employees," Gable said.

Hartman called the assertion of an effect on public safety a "made-up excuse."

Hartman said he believes the borough should be more transparent, and he said if it were, it would not receive so many open-records requests.

Denials of Hartman's previous records requests, and the borough's appeal of one filed by resident Stan Clark, further his perceptions about the borough's lack of transparency, Hartman said.The borough argues it is struggling with day-to-day functions in addressing the requests.

Both sides agree that the expense will come at the hands of taxpayers. Residents will not face a tax increase in the 2017 budget proposal, but council members are still determining terms of the budget, which has yet to be officially approved.

The borough's budget is already severely strained, Council President Robert Krummerich said. Without a tax hike, borough officials are struggling with ways to balance the budget and are looking to increase parking fines.

"(The records requests are) doubly hurtful to the borough because it's coming at budget time," Krummerich said. "Borough taxpayers are going to have to assume the cost for it."

This article is part of a partnership between WITF and the Hanover Evening Sun.

Published in Adams County, News

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