Issues & Ideas

Sunshine Week: Public’s right to see government records getting costly

RECORDS SEARCH: Charlie Rodgers, government records specialist at the History Center in St. Paul, Minn., poses at the file cabinet which holds retention records.
RECORDS SEARCH: Charlie Rodgers, government records specialist at the History Center in St. Paul, Minn., poses at the file cabinet which holds retention records. AP

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 emails 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 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 weeklong open government initiative is celebrating its 10th anniversary beginning March 15.

“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 with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which sponsors Sunshine Week with the American Society of News Editors. “If the people don’t know what’s going on, either because they don’t have direct access to information or because the media isn’t able to provide them with access to information about what their government is doing, it’s impossible for the people to exercise any sense of informed self-governance.”

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 email for a one-year period that contained certain derogatory words for gays. That’s because officials told him their email 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 email system could handle the request easily, but he doesn’t have the resources to take the matter to court.

“It would be their word against ours,” he said. “Even if we could pay that amount, it would be four years. What good would that do me at that point, anyway?”

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 email 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.

“I think there’s a genuine effort to be responsive, but there is a higher cost to fulfill these requests,” said Dan Bevarly, acting executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit based at the University of Missouri-Columbia that works to protect the public’s right to open government. “There are other times where there’s a deliberate effort to circumvent the system.”

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.

Most agencies in Washington state provide electronic records free by email, and state law caps charges for copies at 15 cents a page. But earlier this year, the Legislature considered a bill that would allow agencies to charge for digital public records, raising concerns among good-government advocates. The bill passed one committee but failed in another, meaning it’s likely dead for the year.

Agencies can be allowed to levy charges, says Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, “but they should not be making a profit off of it.”

Some government officials say they are unable to waive fees due to tight budgets. Complicating matters further is a larger number of records being generated and the inability of agencies to maintain and process them, leading to more time and resources dedicated to researching requests.

In most instances, the price to fulfill requests comes down to what’s being sought and the costs associated with responding to them, said Chuck Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association.

“There’s probably a fairly low percentage of governments that are attempting to provide barriers to the release of information,” Thompson said. “It’s really important that the public have the ability to find out what their government’s doing, but they can’t bring their government to their knees.”