Civil Division - New Castle County
January 2, 1996
Dewey Beach Town Council
c/o Robert Frederick, Mayor
105 Rodney Avenue
Dewey Beach, DE 19971
Re: Freedom of Information Act Complaint
29 Del. C. § 10005(e)
Dear Mayor Frederick:
Please consider this the Attorney General's decision in reference to the Freedom of Information Complaint ("the Complaint") filed with this office on October 11, 1995 by Mr. C. Edward Beste.
The Complaint alleged that "Mayor Bob Frederick refused to answer a question asked by a tourist from Maryland (Ms. Payne) on the grounds that the Sunshine Law or Freedom of Information Act in Delaware applies only to Delaware Residents." (Complaint, p. 1). These remarks were made at the Dewey Beach Town Council's meeting on September 8, 1995.
As part of our investigations conducted pursuant to 29 Del. C. 10005(e), we solicited from the Dewey Beach Town Council (the "Council") relevant documents and a response to the Complaint's allegations. During the required investigation, this office received a November 10, 1995 letter from the Town of Dewey Beach's attorney; a copy of the minutes for the Council Meeting on September 8, 1995; a July 23, 1995 letter from Ms. Payne to the Dewey Beach Town Manager requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act; and the Town of Dewey Beach's July 31, 1995 response to Ms. Payne, a Maryland resident. The Town also supplied a tape recording of the September 8, 1995 meeting.
§ 10001. Declaration of policy.
It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that our citizens shall have the opportunity to observe the performance of public officials and to monitor the decisions that are made by such officials in formulating and executing public policy; and further, it is vital that citizens have easy access to public records in order that the society remain free and democratic. Toward these ends, and to further the accountability of government to the citizens of this State, this chapter is adopted, and shall be construed.
§ 10003. Examination and copying of public
(a) All public records shall be open to inspection and copying by any citizen of the State during regular business hours by the custodian of the records for the appropriate public body. Reasonable access to and reasonable facilities for copying of these records shall not be denied to any citizen. If the record is in active use or in storage and, therefore, not available at the time a citizen requests access, the custodian shall so inform the citizen and make an appointment for said citizen to examine such records as expediently as they may be made available. Any reasonable expense involved in the copying of such records shall be levied as a charge on the citizen requesting such copy.
(b) It shall be the responsibility of the public body to establish rules and regulations regarding access to public records as well as fees charged for copying of such records.
DECISION AND ORDER
We find for the following reasons that the Freedom of Information Act, 29 Del. C. ch. 101, (hereinafter "the Act") applies only to Delaware citizens. We also clarify the procedures specified in the Act for obtaining information from the Town of Dewey Beach.
The language of 29 Del. C. § 10001 states that the Act was adopted to "further the accountability of government to the citizens of this State." Also section 10003(a) states that all public records "shall be open to inspection and copying by any citizen of the State." There is no hint of ambiguity in the statutory language and "[w]here the statutory text is plain and unambiguous,....courts should give it effect without referring to any traditional aids of statutory interpretation." Richardson v. Wile, Del. Supr., 535 A.2d 1346, 1349 (1988). If the words in statutory sections do not create doubt as to their meaning and "[i]f there is no reasonable doubt as to the meaning of the words used, the statute is unambiguous and the Court's role is limited to an application of the literal meaning of the words." Hudson Farms, Inc. v. McGrellis, Del. Supr., 620 A.2d 215, 217 (1993). When these principles of statutory interpretation are applied to the phrase "citizen of the state" found in §§ 10001 and 10003(a), the words are to be interpreted according to their plain meaning. This interpretation indicates that the benefits of the Act are applicable only to a citizen of the State of Delaware.
A review of the information provided in this matter by the Town of Dewey Beach indicates that the question concerning the applicability of the Act resulted from the request for information being made at a public meeting. While there is no restriction of whom may attend a public hearing, and while a non-citizen of the State may publicly pose questions to the Town Commissioners at the meeting, a public request for information at the meeting does not require the Town to respond accordingly. The Act provides that information may be requested pursuant to rules and regulations established by the public body for that purpose pursuant to section 10003(b).
The Town of Dewey Beach provided copies of a Freedom of Information Act request made by Ms. Payne in July, 1995 and a response from the Town dated July 31, 1995. After advising Ms. Payne that the Act requires the Town to provide information only to
"any citizen of the State," we note that the Town did, in fact, provide the information requested. In the future, if a request for information is refused, the procedures of § 10003(a) and (b)(1) should be followed by the Council, and any adverse decisions by the public body could be forwarded to this office pursuant to 29 Del. C. §10005(e).
Very truly yours,
John K. Welch
Deputy Attorney General
James J. Hanley
Deputy Attorney General
Michael J. Rich
cc: Robert V. Witsil, Jr., Esquire
C. Edward Beste, Complainant
Elizabeth Bacon, Opinion Administrator
1. We note that Section 10003(b) requires the public body to establish rules and regulations concerning access to public record and fees for copying the same.
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