By Keith Strange
July 24, 2013
A Surry County Health and Nutrition Center policy has resulted in delays in the county responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that could mean animal advocates won’t get a grant to help reduce the unwanted animal population in the county.
According to Jane Taylor, representing spay and neuter advocacy group Mayberry4Paws, a request for data that should be readily available was not responded to in a timely fashion, placing a $5,000 grant application due in August in jeopardy.
Taylor said she filed the initial request for numbers and disposition of animals at the shelter on July 2.
The request was made in order to show a reduction in the number of animals being killed in the county on a grant for funding for spay/neuter programs.
The request was for “all intake and outcome records for all companion animals taken into the Surry County Animal Shelter between, and including, the dates of April 1,2013 and June 30, 2013, to include animal ID, call name if recorded, intake date, date of disposition/outcome, type of disposition/outcome (adopted, released to rescue, killed, escaped, died due to sickness, etc.) and reason for entering the shelter (stray pick-up, owner surrender, quarantine, etc.).
It is data that should be accessed without a lot of trouble, since state law governing the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees the state’s shelters, requires those records be maintained.
Amanda Martin, general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association and authority on the FOIA act, said the FOIA law requires that public bodies provide requested data “as promptly as possible.”
“That request shouldn’t have taken that long,” she said Tuesday morning. “I can’t imagine that it would take that much time to produce, because I certainly think that information should be on a database that could be printed out and compiled very quickly.”
But the policy in place at the Health and Nutrition Center requires that all requests for information be submitted in writing. Once received, the policy requires all requests be forwarded to County Attorney Ed Woltz.
“The information that she’s requesting, per policy, goes directly to the county attorney,” said Thomas Williams, spokesman for the health department.
The county attorney said the delay could have been the result of a simple oversight by his office.
“We received the information and I was under the impression that we’d sent it out, but it may have been overlooked,” he said, noting he thought his office had addressed the request prior to his going on vacation earlier this month. “I received the second request for the information, and thought that we’d already responded. I know I dictated a letter responding to the request before I went on vacation, the last thing that happens before we send out the information. I was under the impression that she’d already received the response to the request.”
Woltz said his office is required to review any request for information related to the Health and Nutrition Center.
“The health department wants me to take a look at everything that is sent out before it goes out,” he said.
And this is not the first time Taylor has seen foot-dragging on the part of the county when dealing with animal advocates.
“Starting at the end of March, we decided that it would be prudent to request shelter data on a quarterly basis because we’re trying to measure the effectiveness of our spay and neuter program,” she said. “These days, everything is data-driven, so if we have the numbers we have evidence of our effectiveness and a way to determine where we need to direct our energies.”
Taylor said that after there was no response to the July 2 request, she had to send a second request on July 21.
“This is a big deal,” she said. “We need the data to be accountable for the grant monies and to apply for the grant funding.
“The last time this happened was in the beginning of April, when we requested data from the first quarter of the year, January through March,” she said. “When we requested it, I received incomplete data so I had to request more information.”
According to Taylor, the county responded with the additional data in just a couple of days.
“I have no complaints about that first request, except we received incomplete data that resulted in a significant delay,” she said.
But she said she doesn’t understand why there is an apparent lack of cooperation on the part of the Health Department.
“The information should be there and ready,” she said. “It should be very easy for them to email it to me.
“I’d think they would want to provide this information because it is helping both our efforts and public education programs about the benefits of spaying and neutering pets,” she said. “These things combine together to improve the plight of animals in the county, meaning fewer animals going into the shelter.
“I would love to not have to do it this way (via FOIA request),” Taylor added. “I would certainly rather be able to just go down to the shelter and ask them for what I need to help us both.”
“I don’t know why she can’t just go there and ask for them either,” he said.
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.