By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Local governments have found a way to cash in when it comes to circumventing the public’s right to know: charging journalists exorbitant fees to obtain public documents.
From Ferguson, Mo., to Fort Lauderdale to Madison, Wis., officials are refusing to turn over public documents unless the media pay fees that far exceed the administrative costs of providing the materials.
City, county and state governments are trying to price the “public” out of public documents, say journalists, First Amendment activists and civil rights groups. Demanding fat fees helps officials stonewall the press and prevent unflattering – or worse — facts from coming to light.
In September, for instance, a Ferguson city clerk told a St. Louis Public Radio reporter that he’d have to pay more than $2,000 for certain records, most of them emails, relating to the Aug. 9 police shooting that killed teenager Michael Brown. The radio station has filed a formal complaint, charging that the exorbitant fees violate Missouri’s open records law.
They also appear to violate federal law. Under the U.S. “Government in the Sunshine Act” passed in 1976, fees for copying records was set a 10 cents a page, with an hourly fee for not to exceed the cost of clerks’ salary to provide the duplication.
Yet Ferguson officials charged The Associated Press $135 an hour, nearly 10 times the hourly salary of staff, for a handful of emails, as the AP reported in late September.
It’s an odd moment in history for officials to get away with that kind of extortion. For years, technology has made it all but unnecessary to copy paper documents.Information can be digitally downloaded and copied in minutes, if not seconds. Sharing information with the public has never been easier, quicker or cheaper.
For secretive agencies and officials, that’s not good news. So they stick to the old ways.
The Center for Public Integrity faced extreme sticker shock in July, when Broward County, Fla., officials demanded a whopping $132,348 for records regarding procedures and policies in foreclosure cases. CPI refused to pay; ultimately the scope of their search and the fees were reduced, but CPI still considers the charge — $7,322 plus per-page fees – too high. And for good reason: researching what they’d pay for the same search in other Florida court districts, CPI found a high of $437 in the Florida panhandle and a low of $77 in the district that includes the state capital of Tallahassee.
School administrations are getting in on the game, too. In Madison, Wis., the Department of Public Instruction is accused of using excessive fees to effectively deny public access to government records.
When a journalist from the investigative news site Wisconsin Reporter sought emails regarding a teacher accused of viewing pornography on school computers, he was told it would cost $18,000. A records officer later claimed that was a math error and the cost would be $1,870.
Mike Mikalsen, chief of staff for Republican Congressman Steve Nass, told the Wisconsin Reporter that the way the agency handles requests for open records “is pure and simple blackmail.”
Last year, StarNews online accused North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration of putting its own spin on the state’s public records law. The governor’s office interpreted the law to mean that document processing taking more than 30 minutes – nowhere in the law is that mentioned — would be billed at $21.73 to $54.47 an hour.
“The Department of Health and Human Services has been particularly insistent on applying the charge, probably because nosy reporters have been poking around trying to find records relating to highly paid staff and lucrative, no bid contracts,” StarNews online editorialized last December.
The fees could be charged to anyone seeking records, but as StarNews pointed out, “Reporters are often the ones who make record requests because it’s their job to find out how government agencies are operating.”
In other words, sunshine laws may help the media, but they protect everyone’s right to know what government is doing and how they’re doing it.
And there’s no reason today that finding those things out should break anyone’s bank.