One of America’s richest counties, Montgomery County, Maryland, is locked in a high-stakes showdown over a public information request that could benefit one of its most diverse and low-income areas.
The county has been chipping away at plans to construct an $89 million recreation and library center in Wheaton, a 50,000-person town that is one of the country's most diverse for its size. The project, which has been in the works since 2009, has ballooned in price from a $35 million estimate in 2012. Now, officials are apparently attempting to cut down on the costs.
But when community leaders attempted to find out exactly where corners would be cut and what type of changes were being made to the plans, the county stuck them with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars. The president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association, Kimblyn Persaud, petitioned for all records of communication between the county and the firm designing the building. Filing her inquiry under the Maryland Public Information Act, Persaud was surprised when she was slapped with a $58,407 price tag for the request, and a three-month wait time.
"We knew there was going to be a charge...but being naive we thought $400 or $500, and we were going to do a fundraiser," Persaud says. "When I got $58,407 [bill]"—and she begins to laugh hysterically—"I thought maybe he misplaced a decimal...There's no fundraiser we can have in this area that's going to raise $58,000."
Wheaton and its sister town Glenmont have incomes that are significantly lower than the county median—around $20,000 less per household, according to demographics aggregator City Data. Its population is also much more diverse, with 37 percent identifying as Hispanic and nearly half of the population being foreign born.
Persaud says she was attempting to determine why the cost of the project was deemed too expensive when other town’s projects have cost around the same or more, and wonders if the town's diverse demographics have anything to do with its treatment. "They're telling us we're not worth $89 million," she says. "There's no other way to cut it. And they're not going to explain to us why, so the only conclusion we can come to is we're not a Potomac, we're not Bethesda, and we have a large minority and immigrant population...therefore we're not relevant in Montgomery County." While other cities in the county have recently gotten new recreational centers, libraries and even aquatic centers, Persaud says Wheaton rarely sees its tax money actually used within the community. "We're not the money makers," Persaud says. "All the money leaves here, but nothing ever comes back to Wheaton."
Both buildings the town is looking to replace—the library and the recreational center—are over 50 years old. "The people who have resources can take their kids elsewhere," she says. "But the people who don't have those resources are forced to stay here in a rec center that's dilapidated, moldy and almost falling apart."
When contacted by the The Washington Post, city officials argued that the request would require three months of data mining, costing $50,000, and then additional hours of review, also at high hourly fees. "Please be advised that the above is only an estimate and actual numbers may vary,” the letter from the Department of General Services notes. The costs and time could be discussed, they later told Persaud, if she was willing to adjust her inquiry. Brooke Farquhar, the project’s point of contact in the park’s department, did not answer a request for comment from The Daily Beast at the time of publishing.
Though government information is supposed to be available for public domain when requested, actually obtaining it can be difficult, slow and expensive. In October, the Missouri Attorney General received a slew of formal complaints from media organizations after requesting a $2,000 advance fee for Freedom of Information Act requests involving Ferguson. There have been horror stories of six-year waits and officials charging 10 times a government employee’s salary for time spent gathering the information.
But for a small community recreation center, Persaud thinks such costs are unwarranted. "They were intimidating us and it worked," says Persaud, noting that she would submit a request for a fee waiver but don't expect it to change the cost. For years, community activists have been petitioning for renovations for the library, which only last got a makeover 30 years ago. They were infuriated in 2012 when the city revealed it wasn’t planning to begin work until the 2018 fiscal year. Three more months and thousands of dollars added to the delays isn’t welcome news in the little town.
"This is the way the county has treated Wheaton for almost two decades," she says. "They can't make it any clearer that we're not worth the time and effort than by charging $58,000 for the requests."