University slow with FOI request

In an attempt to present an accurate representation of how student fees are allocated to various organizations, The Mercury hoped to publish fee allocations and expenditures for last year in addition to the allocations for the current year printed on Page One of this issue.

As the voice of the student body, The Mercury attempted to access detailed numbers from last fiscal year and was met only with confusion.

On Nov. 27, editors filed a Freedom of Information, or FOI, request through the Office of Administration, and in it identified the desired data. The following is an excerpt from said request:

“(The Mercury) would also like to request access to and a copy of the total funds allocated and spent by all organizations and groups funded in part and fully by student fees for fiscal year 2012, beginning September 2011 and ending August 2012.”

According to state law, an agency is required to respond with the information within 10 business days, unless the request involves large amounts of data or work, in which case the deadline can be extended to 20 business days.

The university initially responded to our request within the proper deadline and correctly provided The Mercury with figures from FY13. However, the university also provided figures from FY11, rather than those from FY12.

Additionally, multiple university officials said that filing an FOI request is not necessary, and the information is more easily accessible through a channel separate from the Office of Administration.

Our writer pursued that option and was again provided figures from the incorrect fiscal year by an official.

The writer then met with the same university official on Dec. 20 and was told that the original FOI request contained confusing language and should be clarified. The official also said the student fee expenditures do not exceed the allocations, and therefore we should not continue asking for the expenditures.

Following discussions with Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, or SPLC, The Mercury chose to offer an extension to the existing request on Dec. 20, allowing the university the chance to provide the information following winter break and avoid violating state law.

The following excerpt is from an email clarifying the initial FOI request, sent on Dec. 20, which gave the university until Jan. 7 to respond:

“(The Mercury has) received the budget allocations for FY13, and we thank you for that. Allocations and expenditures of all student fee funded organizations and departments, as was requested in the FOI, however, have not been provided to us yet.

As a result, we do not wish to withdraw the FOI request and are still requesting student fee budget allocations for FY12 and the actual total expenditure of all student fee funded departments or organizations for FY12, as was requested in the original FOI request.”

The Jan. 7 deadline passed, and multiple university officials informed The Mercury on Jan. 11 that our extension was interpreted as a new FOI request, and therefore the university said it is not legally obligated to respond until Jan. 15.

LoMonte said, based on the information sent in the Dec. 20 email, the university should not have considered that to be a new FOI and rather should have accepted it as an extension. However, because the email was misinterpreted, SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein said the university, in its eyes, is not technically breaking the law.

Both agreed, though, that the communication chain is flawed in some way if a relatively simple request was not responded to correctly within the legal — and then extended — time frame.

The Mercury editors concur with the attorneys’ opinions. The university, though in its eyes operating within the confines of state law, has not been particularly forthright in addressing our request.

Editors and the writer were told our FOI requests were confusing and, after clarifying and waiting for nearly a month, there has still not been a resolution to the issue at the time this paper was published.

One reason offered by the university for the delay in data collecting was the absence of one employee, who was out of town at the time we offered the FOI extension. However, LoMonte and Goldstein both said more than one person should have access to that information, as budget information is critical to any institution.

The entire process has been muddled and full of misinterpretations. While The Mercury does not at all believe the university is purposely avoiding handing over the numbers because of shady business practices, it is still frustrating to wait for nearly two months for the answer to an innocuous request.

The university is making a strong push for Tier One, and one consequence of that effort is millions of dollars worth of appropriations to very specific areas of the institution. Students voted last year to add to student fees in order to increase the size of the Student Union and the Activity Center.

If our student fees will continue to increase during the next few fiscal years, we as students are entitled to know where our money is going.

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