Freedom of Information Ain’t Free

Lake and Main has spent many hours researching, writing and even defending reporting of the curious case of the Mayor of Lexington and his unnatural urge to provide free parking to a hotel in the middle of town. Many readers believed the pursuit of this story was merely campaign propaganda for MacDougall’s mayoral opponent – and my friend – Town Councilman Ron Williams. It was and is not.

The sordid story of McDougall’s assault on Lexington Masonic Lodge #152 was happened upon while researching the Town’s use of executive session. (It appears the Council, under MacDougall’s chairmanship, broke state law on at least one occasion. More to come). So enamored with this hotel is Mayor Steve MacDougall that he adamantly tried to take property from an iconic American institution.

When the whole of what we know is looked at objectively; the Masons’ story, the timeline and MacDougall’s actions, it’s hard for me to believe this matter is a misunderstood municipal process.

Does this mean that I think something inappropriate, unethical or even criminal is afoot? Yes I do. Very much so. Do I have evidence to confirm my suspicions? No.

The intellectual “gut” often sees or understands things we can’t rationalize. Professionals; doctors, police, military strategists, reporters, attorneys, etc. routinely experience “gut feelings” that lead them to conclusions before tangible evidence catches up. It also happens to career intelligence professionals.  Our experiences and expertise educate and condition us to recognize behaviors even if that recognition is subliminal.

But all that blather is immaterial when trying to prove suspicions. That’s a fundamental and necessary truth in law enforcement, journalism and intelligence.

To do more research and obtain documentation via a Freedom of Information Act request, I asked for the Mayor’s text messages for the first three months of 2018 (he uses a Town-owned cell phone). To hold down costs and make the information exchange quicker and easier, I requested the texts be emailed to me rather than printed hardcopy.

Since text messages are outside the protected confines of executive session, they don’t qualify for the confidentiality accorded those secret meetings.  Personal information should not be redacted because personal business is not permitted on public systems.  And government business is not allowed on private systems (see Hillary Clinton).

The point of the request was to acquire public records that might either confirm my suspicions, absolve the Mayor (which would be a good thing) or be altogether inconclusive.

As it turns out – none of the above.

State law allows for charging FOIA requestors for the work required to collect, review and produce documents, and that’s fair. Large federal agencies have FOIA offices with paid staffers experienced in the process. Small municipalities don’t have those resources.

Still, it was a shock to be notified that the cost to fulfill my request would be over $500. My intention was to obtain three months of texts at a time. That would allow for reading through them sequentially and determine if it would be worthwhile to ask for the next three months of texts.

That ain’t gonna happen.

Lake and Main is an unintentionally non-profit endeavor. There is no advertising, no “pay-for-posting” (as is the practice of some “folks”) and political endorsements are freely given as personal opinion. Blog services, custom site design and promoting posts is not free. To spend $500 – ultimately three-to-four times that for a year’s worth of texts – is not practical.

Nonetheless, it’s frustrating when “public” records are only public if the public can afford to pay for them!  So, the Mayor gets to keep his words and actions hidden from the public.  For now.

Although this attempt to provide citizens with information – public information – about the hotel scheme project was not successful, there are other means to get to the truth and Lake and Main is pursuing them. Those means require documentation, which I DO have, and filling out forms and submitting various types of substantiation.

And it will only cost me postage.

I want to publicly acknowledge my contact in this effort, Town Attorney Brad Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham has been extremely helpful and professional in working with me to fulfil the request and I appreciate his assistance.


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