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Editorial: Defining reasonable

When do reasonable requests become something more?

When does annoying persistence become harassment?

Undoubtedly there are personalities, perceptions and intentions that come into play — and, of course state law — particularly when such requests include what can be called “the people’s business.”

That’s what makes what’s happening in Ashfield a tricky affair.

Public records should and must be available to anyone coming forward, no questions asked. For many decades, The Recorder has taken the lead locally in making sure that local governments are sensitive to the law’s mandate that their business be conducted in public.

But in return, the person making the request should understand fulfilling such requests takes time and that multiple requests will take even longer. This is especially true when the requests are made to a town hall where the staff is limited to essentially a handful of employees.

Finding the balance in Ashfield is made even harder given that there’s animosity that’s been building over time.

Does a request for digital copies of 192 emails from the Board of Health seem excessive? Yes, given the official time frame of 10 days to respond to each request and considering that there have been a number of other requests from the same individual.

Is the fact that most of the requests coming from three individuals this year — at a pace that looks to more than double the number of requests from 2012 — indicate that there’s something more going on beyond information gathering? Probably, though this again goes to intent and without the individuals offering their own public explanation at this point, it remains speculative that part of the motive here involves harassment.

And where do duplicate requests for same or similar information coming from the same individuals fall?

We know what selectmen, some town employees and some resident, think.

The board has decided that it’s putting a group of individuals on notice that they won’t be complying with the request. “I don’t believe it’s a long-term solution and I believe the attorney general would get involved,” selectmen’s Chairman Tom Carter said during a board vote to adopt this position.

While Carter did say he thinks the town’s action will bring about a reaction from the AG’s office, he’s also hoping that it might bring about a change in the regulations.

Instead of waiting to hear from the AG, we think Ashfield should take a proactive approach and contact the state first. Doing so might allow for more of a dialogue between the town and the state that might lead to an answer as to how the matter should be handled.

And Ashfield officials should also look into what should be charged for billable research hours. Here, too, the state may be able to provide practical guidance. That way if the town has no other recourse, then it should be getting equitable compensation for its work. And if that has impact of having people think carefully about their requests, then that relieves some of the pressure on town hall staff.

The overall idea here is for a balance between providing people the information they are entitled to and their other work. That’s something that all residents should understand and accept.

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