Democrat File Photo
SCCC Board Chair Phyllis Coombe holds up a printout of Ken Walter’s FOIL requests to the college.
as two sides argue
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO The ongoing tug-of-war between Sullivan County Community College and Ken Walter came to a head at Thursday’s Executive Committee meeting of the County Legislature.
College board members painted Walter as a time-consuming nuisance with a personal agenda, while Walter countered that SCCC’s leaders are obstinate and secretive.
Legislators, who have battled with both sides themselves, attempted to broker a truce, but the meeting never got beyond an airing of accusations.
Indeed, college officials were left with the impression that they’ll just have to put up with Walter’s incessant FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests, though Walter continues to lack legislative support in his quest to end the construction of windmills on the Loch Sheldrake campus.
In fact, he’s banned from the campus except during public events, like board meetings, or if he alerts the college beforehand.
Legislator David Sager asked SCCC board members to quantify how many FOIL requests Walter has been making, and Board Chair Phyllis Coombe was ready with an answer.
Holding up a list of printouts pasted together, she said more than 60 requests have been logged in the past year and a half (though that figure includes repeated requests about the same info). In comparison, FOIL requests from any party totalled just 7 in the 10 years preceding Walter’s avalanche of requests beginning in 2007.
Additionally, Walter asks for the FOIL info to be e-mailed, vastly increasing the required research time, due to the fact that many college records are either not in electronic form or must be redacted.
But SCCC leaders found little sympathy from county legislators, who noted how often they have to deal with irritating people and high-volume FOIL requests (one for a 300-page-plus document was filed with the county that day, in fact).
“If you can’t provide him the information in electronic format ... I think that should be given to him free of charge,” said Legislator David Sager. “... I don’t think this is out of control. I think you have to provide him with the information. I want open government in my county government, and I am not going to settle for anything less with an agency we hyperfund.”
SCCC Board member Sharon Jankiewicz took issue with that statement, saying Walter has been invited to review documents at the college but insists on having them e-mailed.
“We listen to him,” she said. “We are not disrespectful to him in any way.”
Coombe also alleged that Walter had a personal vendetta, that he had sought to lease or sell his mother’s property abutting the campus to the college for use in siting an experimental wind turbine. Instead, the college chose to have it built within view of Walter’s mother’s house but on college property.
Walter, however, told legislators that “at no time did the college ever talk to my mother” about the windmill plans though he added that he and his mother remain open to purchase offers.
“You still got an issue where some of you may be sued personally,” he warned officials in the room (he’s already in litigation over the windmill).
Walter made a case that college officials have deliberately obstructed his efforts to gain publicly-available info, to the point where e-mailed PDFs cannot be copied to another email address.
He also disputed their figures on his FOIL requests, claiming he had only submitted a total of 37 requests in the past year and a half.
“And I did a lot of fighting for it,” he remarked, lamenting the lack of meeting minutes and agendas on the college’s website which, as of last week, was still erroneously stating that e-mailed FOIL requests would not be honored.
Walter accused the college of having a history of being secretive, allowing it to undertake what he feels are questionable expenditures and procedures.
“I don’t know who is blowing smoke here,” he said. “It’s not me.”
Walter was joined in his lament of the college by Bill Burn, a retired SCCC buildings and grounds worker who is charging that the college is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a charge the college denies, citing a passed audit conducted by the state Department of Education.
Burn, too, has been asked not to come on campus without notifying the college ahead of time.
Legislators seemed frustrated with the back-and-forth.
“The main problem here,” said Legislator Leni Binder, is that the Legislature’s concern over college spending “has gotten blended in with the windmill issue.”
“There is no company void of making mistakes,” Legislator Jodi Goodman observed. “... Do we make mistakes with intent? Do we do it on purpose?”
Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis didn’t think so, calling the board members “good, well-intentioned people.”
“We would like to get a comfort level,” he told them, “that you are going to direct your administration to comply with the spirit of the [FOIL] law.”
Goodman didn’t seem to think the college was intentionally obstructing Walter either, but she did see a need for an “intermediary” or arbitrator of some kind.
Otherwise, she warned, “this will be endless.”