Freedom of Information Act and the Local Municipalities

As we all know, there are a number of municipalities that have licensing requirements, in fact, nearly every single municipality requires a license for at least one thing.

There was a period of time, here, at Business Licenses, LLC, when I was researching the requirements with regards to permits and licenses for alarm installations. I was assigned a number of local municipalities whom I called to discover these regulations. Many times, I could simply read the code which was conveniently posted online and didn’t have to call anyone to discover these requirements.

When on the phone, most of the municipalities were rather forthcoming and offered information and detailed explanations about what to expect, how much it will cost, etc. Some municipalities, however, are not as forthcoming. The ones that were not as forthcoming sometimes acted as extreme as to make one believe that their regulations were ‘top secret’ information. Under the Freedom of Information Act I can request information about the Federal Government including, ‘copies of all records, regardless of form or format.’ (5 U.S.C. §  552 (a)(2)(D) http://www.justice.gov/oip/foia_updates/Vol_XVII_4/page2.htm) Many things are no longer ‘top secret’ under the law and, most certainly, a municipality's codes should not be treated as such.

Also, The Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 requires that all agencies make ‘certain types of records, created by the agency on or after November 1, 1996, available electronically.’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_Information_Act_(United_States)) However, most of the municipalities with the ‘top secret’ attitude typically haven’t amended, changed or created any new amendments since 1996 thereby allowing them to keep their records only in books that have to be purchased or looked at in the office or library in the given municipality.

These municipalities, protecting their codes and alarm licensing procedures, usually come out and say: ‘if you want to see the code you will need to file a Freedom of Information Request. The application is on the website and the fee is $10 initial processing fee and $2 per page of information.’ Or they will say, ‘you can come into the given office and read the code for free.’ In today’s business world, this is unduly onerous. A municipality with this policy is damaging the viability of new business in its jurisdiction. Instead of offering to provide the information these municipalities adopt a new bureaucratic process to clog the system. In a truly business friendly locale the local municipalities would be forthcoming about the requirements rather than hiding behind extra paper work and filing fees. They could simply add this fee into the business license fee as a ‘processing fee’ instead of using the Freedom of Information delay tactic. From experience, it is usually the people in these departments who are unsure about the codes or have little experience applying the codes who immediately fall to the mantra “you can file a freedom of information act request.”

Recently, in Graysville, Alabama I needed to file a business license. I call the Authority to ask how much the fee will be and the woman asks me a few questions and determines that the business license fee will be nearly $4,000! I ask her how she calculated the fee and she indicates her mathematical procedure. The math was correct. Then I asked her where in the code does it say that my business license fee should be calculated that way. I tell her that all of the other surrounding localities have a fee substantially lower. She shares with me the Ordinance number and sections. I ask her if I can find a copy of the Codes on the internet or if she can email or mail me a copy of the ordinance. She refuses to mail me a copy and states that the ordinance is not online, alternatively, she indicates that I can come down to the office and read the ordinance. I tell her that I cannot come there and she tells me that if I want a copy of the code I can file a Freedom of Information Request at the prescribed $10 initial fee and the $2 per page!

The Freedom of Information Act, in my experience, has actually impeded the free flow of information which is exactly the opposite of the intentions of the legislation as it now gives these local municipalities more reasons to block the flow of information and therefore blocking business activities in the respective jurisdictions.

 

About The Author

Jessica Taylor

Jessica Taylor is a certified paralegal with significant experience in criminal prosecution, corporate compliance, business law, homelessness policy, environmental law and family law. She currently serves as a Corporate Associate at Business Licenses LLC where she oversees the licensing of various companies across the United States. She takes pride in her client centered service and in executing timely licensing strategies.

Her background includes internships with a Family Law Firm in Nottingham, UK, The Environmental Law Foundation in London, UK, TEMPO Networks in Newark, NJ and as an employee with the St. Louis Circuit Court in St. Louis, MO. She has experience with both the US legal system and UK legal system. Prior to her work with Business Licenses, LLC, Jessica completed Law School at City University in London, UK where she completed a dissertation on US and UK homelessness policy, earning an LLM in Legal Practice.