Big costs to see public documents hinder access, experts say
By Michael Felberbaum
The public’s right to see government records is coming at an ever-increasing price as authorities set fees and hourly charges that often prevent information from flowing.
Though some states have taken steps to limit the fees, many have not:
► In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback’s office told The Wichita Eagle that it would have to pay $1,235 to obtain records of e-mail and phone conversations between his office and a former chief of staff who is now a prominent statehouse lobbyist. Mississippi law allows the state to charge hourly for research, redaction and labor, including $15 an hour simply to have a state employee watch a reporter or private citizen review documents.
► The Associated Press dropped a records request after Oregon State Police demanded $4,000 for 25 hours of staff time to prepare, review and redact materials related to the investigation of the director of a boxing and martial arts regulatory commission.
Whether roadblocks are created by authorities to discourage those seeking information or are simply a byproduct of bureaucracy and tighter budgets, greater costs to fulfill freedom of information requests ultimately can interfere with the public’s right to know. Such costs are a growing threat to expanding openness at all levels of government, a cornerstone of Sunshine Week. The week-long open-government initiative is celebrating its 10th anniversary beginning today.
“It’s incredibly easy for an agency that doesn’t want certain records to be exposed to impose fees in the hopes that the requester is dissuaded,” said Adam Marshall, a fellow for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which sponsors Sunshine Week with the American Society of News Editors.
Fees can be charged for searching for records, making copies, paying a lawyer to redact certain parts of the information or hiring technical experts to analyze the data.
In most cases, the fees imposed are at the agency’s discretion; those agencies sometimes waive the costs or requesters can appeal them to an administrative board. But in other cases, Marshall said, news organizations and private citizens are faced with the “ridiculous choice” of weighing the costs and benefits of being a responsible public steward.
In Florida, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office told Jason Parsley, executive editor of the South Florida Gay News, last year that it would cost $399,000 and take four years to provide every e-mail for a one-year period that contained certain derogatory words for gays. The reason, according to officials: The e-mail system could not perform a keyword search of all accounts at once.
Parsley says he has talked to computer experts who disagree and say a modern e-mail system could handle the request easily, but he doesn’t have the money or the time to take the matter to court.
If the goal was to keep him from learning that deputies used such terms, authorities won, Parsley said.
Broward County Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Caldwell said the department was not trying to be evasive. He said each employee’s e-mail is stored on a tape and kept at a remote archive facility. It has to be retrieved physically and then converted into a Microsoft Outlook file, which can then be searched.
“If we have it, we have to provide it,” he said. “The reason this cost so much is that this person had a very vague request.”
Virginia law allows reasonable charges not to exceed the actual cost of accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. But to get electronic copies of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s daily calendar for nearly 10 months, officials told the AP that it would need to pay about $500 upfront. That’s because McAuliffe’s counsel said staff would have had to search, review and possibly redact certain calendar entries. Meanwhile, in California, daily calendar entries for Gov. Jerry Brown are routinely provided at no cost to the AP. Lawmakers in several states have proposed or passed laws seeking to address those fees. Michigan lawmakers recently approved a law mandating that agencies cannot charge more than 10 cents a page for documents. Further, people can file a lawsuit if they believe they are being overcharged and can try to get the amount reduced. If a court agrees, it must assess $1,000 in punitive damages. In February, Maryland lawmakers introduced a bill that would establish a compliance board to handle complaints and cap the fees agencies can charge for public documents.
Contributing: Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Jackson, Miss.; Curt Anderson in Miami; Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore.; David Eggert in Lansing, Mich.; Ryan J. Foley in Iowa City, Iowa; John D. Hannah in Topeka; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash.; Judy Lin in Sacramento; Erik Schelzig in Nashville; Lauryn Schroeder in Indianapolis; and Meredith Somers in Annapolis, Md.