The private meetings of a working group in Rehoboth formed to examine the city’s wastewater rate structure have been deemed a violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
In a Feb. 11 opinion from Deputy Attorney General Dorey Cole, the working group was deemed a public body, and it was recommended the committee comply with open meeting requirements in the future. She said meeting minutes, if they exist, should be made public, and if they were not created, it was recommended it be done.
The working group was formed by Mayor Paul Kuhns after a number of public meetings related to the possibility of Sussex County taking over the city’s wastewater treatment plant and related system.
Working group members include City Manager Sharon Lynn, Public Works Director Kevin Williams, Finance Director Burt Dukes and four Rehoboth property owners: Roger Truitt, Bruce Williams, Deb Ward and Michael Strange. Representatives from the Abrahams Group, a consultant hired by the city, are also participating in the working group.
During a meeting Jan. 18, Williams briefed the commissioners and public. He said the committee’s first meeting was Jan. 14, with a time frame to complete their work by the commissioners’ workshop Monday, March 4. He said the first meeting was to bring everyone up to speed on the Abrahams Group report, and conditions of the plant and other buildings.
The petition regarding the Freedom of Information Act violation was filed by Jan Konesey, Brian Patterson, Jennifer Duncan, Gary Glass, Steve Latsios, Marjorie Holman and Bob Lawrence.
Cole said there is a two-part test to determine if a public body should operate under FOIA.
The first part is whether the group is a regulatory, administrative, advisory, executive appointive or legislative body of the state, or any political subdivision of the state. If that requirement is met, the attorney general must then determine whether the entity is supported in whole or in part by any public funds, expends or disburses any public funds, or is specifically charged by any other public official, body or agency to make reports.
Cole said the committee is an advisory group and then uses Kuhns’ own responses to the attorney general’s inquiry as evidence the working group falls under FOIA. According to the report, Kuhns wrote the working group would provide him with suggestions that he would provide to the commissioners.
In an email Feb. 12, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said it would be inappropriate to comment on the decision because former Mayor Sam Cooper has also filed a FOIA complaint with the attorney general, and that matter is still pending.
As a group, in an email Feb. 13, the petitioners said the town hall meeting in January showed the public is deeply concerned about the future of the wastewater treatment plant. The mayor and commissioners promised an open government when running for office, but the future of the wastewater plant has continued to be handled in secret and in violation of FOIA, they said.
“The public’s business should be done in public. The law is clear. We thank the attorney general’s office for agreeing with us. This is the first time we are having these FOIA problems in Rehoboth Beach, and it is very concerning,” the group response said.
In a post on the city’s website Feb. 13, it says the city is moving forward with the attorney general’s recommendation for public meetings. The next working group meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 20, in the commissioners room at city hall, 229 Rehoboth Ave. The meeting agenda is available at cityofrehoboth.civicweb.net/portal. Included with the agenda are minutes from meetings on Jan. 14, Jan. 22, Jan. 28 and Feb. 5. According to the Feb. 5 minutes, there was a meeting Feb. 11, but those minutes have not been posted.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from the FOIA complaint petitioners and additional information from the city.