Emergency in Gregg Township? Employee resigns, costs mount for Right-to-Know requests

What is the FOIA?

Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
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Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.

Gregg Township will have a deficit in its 2019 budget that’s partially due to a deluge of Right-to-Know requests, most of which stem from the same person, according to Supervisor Keri Miller.

The issue came to a head at a heated town hall meeting Wednesday, during which Miller announced that the township’s secretary, Jennifer Snyder, was resigning due to the “hateful ridicule” she endured during the RTK appeal correspondence. In addition to secretary, Snyder served as the township’s treasurer and designated RTK officer.

The township has spent almost $25,000 in man-hours and attorney fees processing the 90 RTK requests received this year, according to Miller.

The human and financial cost of RTK

RTK requests from Michelle Grove, who lives in Spring Mills with her husband Casey Grove, the township’s constable, make up the bulk of the 90 requests the township received in 2018. So far this year, Michelle Grove has filed 66 RTK requests and Casey Grove has filed five.

In general, Michelle Grove said, she has a “very difficult time getting simple questions answered” by Gregg Township officials, so she files RTK requests to obtain information.

Gregg Township has only had 164 RTK requests since 2008 — when the current RTK law was signed into order — said Miller, and 74 of those occurred over a nine-year period from 2008 to 2017.

“What the law doesn’t account for is the impact that serial requesters have on the operation of small townships, ultimately costing the taxpayers it was created for,” Miller said at the meeting Wednesday.

Examples of RTK requests filed this year, according to Miller, include: the contents of a piece of paper read aloud at a public meeting, internet browsing history of all township computers and cellphones and surveillance footage of two employees entering and exiting the building throughout the day.

Of the 90 requests received this year, Miller said 66 were granted and 13 were denied — eight on the basis of security concerns, two for attorney-client privilege and three because anonymous persons or corporations were asking for real estate information not available through the township.

Thirty-one RTK requests have been appealed, with Michelle Grove filing 26 of those and Casey Grove filing one.

Miller estimated Snyder spent about 15-20 hours of her 40-hour work week — or about $13,806 for 15 man-hours — on RTK requests, appeals, dates and answering related emails. Some weeks, Miller said, it was 20-30 hours dedicated to RTK.

“If we add all the secretary’s wages spent on Right-To-Know — $13,806 — and the solicitor expenses totaling $10,442 only for January through September on Right-To-Know for just this year, the township has spent, at a minimum, $24,248.28 on Right To Know so far this year, with three more months’ ... worth of solicitor bills that will be added to that number,” Miller said.

A “low ball guess,” Miller said in a phone interview Thursday, would be $3,000 for not-yet-billed attorney’s fees from September to December on top of the nearly $11,000 already spent on attorney’s fees.

Due to the increased attorney’s fees from the influx of RTK requests and appeals — the township will have six RTK appeal cases in the Court of Common Pleas next year — Gregg Township doubled its solicitor line item to $13,000 for the 2019 budget.

The township is not increasing taxes for the 2019 budget. But, Miller said, the township is planning to pass the budget with a $5,000 deficit. That deficit is due mostly to health insurance cost increases for township employees and the increase in solicitor bills stemming from RTK requests, she said.

‘Neighbor against neighbor:’ Township residents weigh in

During the tense town hall meeting Wednesday, many Gregg Township residents expressed concern over the amount of money the township is spending on processing and fighting appeals for RTK requests.

Gil Morrison, who serves on the township’s sewer authority, said the problem isn’t unique to Gregg Township — the Groves have filed RTK requests with Penn Township and Millheim, have filed a civil complaint in the state Supreme Court against Penns Valley Area School District and fought and won a RTK appeal against state police in state Supreme Court.

“My suggestion would be to do no business with the Groves, to do no business with anybody who does business with the Groves and to show them that they are not welcome to attack our communities,” Morrison said.

As call-outs against the Groves mounted, with some people talking and shouting over each other, Gregg Township resident Jennifer Cornwell said she felt uncomfortable with the mood of the meeting.

“What’s happening here is verging on an incitement to more bullying,” she said, adding that the meeting had been directed “to an unfortunate degree” against the Groves in hopes of “turning neighbor against neighbor.”

Several residents came to Snyder’s defense, with one saying her treatment by Grove was “shameful.”

When Michelle Grove was asked to address the crowd of about 50, she declined to talk extensively in that venue, “in a room full of people holding pitchforks.”

“I have never made a choice to spend money on these things, I have never made a choice to take them into the court system,” Grove said. “The township has made that choice; they just brought three more (RTK cases) into the court system.”

What’s behind the RTK requests?

By her own account, Michelle Grove has been filing RTK requests against various agencies since 2014. In an email exchange, Michelle Grove explained why she has filed so many RTK requests with Gregg Township.

“Because the township fights many of my requests, I keep them brief. This automatically results in a higher number of requests,” she wrote. “Some of my requests this year were for records to post on my website, greggtownshipunofficial.org. Other requests were filed to research topics for a local newspaper column. Some requests were for items that should have been included in response to previous requests, but were not.”

On one occasion, she said, she wanted to check security camera footage against employee time cards she believed were not accurate. The township, as detailed by Miller on Wednesday night, refused her request for security camera footage because it did not want the camera angles posted on the internet and wanted to protect the identities of some of the youth in the foster care system who attend the youth center located in the same building as the township offices.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, Grove said she was disappointed in the community.

“That spectacle was nothing more than a public shaming, arranged and encouraged by township representatives. A lot of people fell for it, and they should be embarrassed by their reprehensible behavior. Gregg Township has a history of using intimidation tactics against residents,” she wrote.

Still, Grove is not swayed by the township nor some of the community members. She said she doesn’t believe she has harassed anyone involved with the township.

“I do not intend to stop filing Right-to-Know requests,” she wrote.