Houlton seeks legal costs from resident who sued town over FOAA request

3 weeks ago

HOULTON, Maine – Houlton officials have asked a court to throw out a resident’s lawsuit against the town that alleges they failed to release documents he sought via a Freedom of Access Act request. 

In April, Craig Harriman requested access to town government records relevant to the installation of 50 surveillance cameras, the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds for the cameras, and the policies and procedures regarding the cameras’ data, according to the lawsuit.

Last week town officials filed a response in Houlton Superior Court seeking to permanently dismiss Harriman’s lawsuit, alleging they never denied his request for the documents. They also asked that Harriman pay for all legal costs incurred by the town as well as any other relief determined by the court, according to court documents.

“In my opinion, the response from the town has been very disappointing and unprofessional,’’ Harriman said Tuesday. 

Daniel Nelson, attorney for the town, was not available on Wednesday morning and did not return a message seeking comment. 

The Town of Houlton and the Houlton Police Department said they did not refuse or deny Harriman’s FOAA request, according to court documents.

The conflict began several months ago when Harriman said he was denied the information he sought even after he told Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca that he would come into the police station and inspect and copy the documents in person. He filed a FOAA on April 22.

Harriman had the right to file his request to access the documents with the court 30 days after the town failed to allow him access to the documents, according to state law

HOULTON, Maine — June 26, 2024 — There has been an ongoing controversy between a resident and Houlton officials regarding the release of documents from a Freedom of Access Act request related to surveillance cameras in town locations. One of the cameras in question (white object near center) is on the town office building downtown.   (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times).

The lawsuit against the town was filed on June 4, 43 days after he filed his FOAA request. 

On June 18, 14 days after Harriman filed the lawsuit, the town mailed him a packet of information including invoices, contracts, budgets, purchase orders and town council meeting minutes related to the cameras. 

The documents included in Harriman’s packet did not answer all his initial FOAA questions, he said.

A BDN inspection of the documents given to Harriman found there were duplicates of invoices and purchase orders. The documents included information differing from previous public comments related to the matter by town officials. For example, DeLuca told the BDN on Jan. 10 that the town paid $130,000 for the 50 Verkada surveillance cameras.  

“The cameras were purchased with American Rescue Plan Act funds,” DeLuca said. “The brand is VERKADA which includes supporting software. The initial commitment was $130,000 which includes the hardware, software, installation, and connection. “

According to the documents provided to Harriman, the town leased the cameras from VAR Technology Finance in annual payments of $37,968, plus $1,848 insurance, starting in 2022. There were additional costs for cables, switches, TV monitors, mounts and $14,891 for installation, which differ from what DeLuca said were part of the Verkada price.

Verkada also billed the town for one surveillance camera in 2021 at $3,125. The town allegedly purchased 50 cameras, which at that price would have totaled $156,250, plus the additional installation and supporting equipment. The Verkada invoice also lists two, one-year licenses on the camera at $398. It is not clear if all 50 cameras have an additional annual licensing fee and what licensing includes. 

In response to a FOAA request from the BDN in May, Houlton Town Manager Jeremy Smith said the cameras were purchased in March 2022 with ARPA funds. The town has not provided supporting documents, despite multiple requests by the BDN. 

Harriman said he did not receive several documents he requested and because of the conflicting data he has filed an additional FOAA with the town requesting emails and specific invoices to explain town expenditures related to the cameras. 

“I still have not seen any documentation on who controls and maintains the data and the costs associated with it,” Harriman said. “I believe the judge is going to find for the legality of the lawsuit.”