$18,500 for three months’ worth of e-mails?

A frequent tactic in the FOI game is the eye-popping fee for redaction and records preparation. I’d like to say this is an unusual price tag, but I’ve run across several similar stories in the past few months:

A group of taxpayers in the Rockwood School District has been told it must pay $18,005 for a public records request, prompting the group to ask the state auditor’s office to review the matter as part of an upcoming audit of the district.

On April 16, the group, which goes by the name Rockwood Stakeholders for Real Solutions, requested copies of 3½ months of emails sent to and from the district email accounts of School Board members, the board secretary, the superintendent and the president of the teachers union.

After informing the group that the request would involve thousands of pages of records, district spokeswoman Kim Cranston asked the group to be more specific.

The taxpayer group responded by saying it was seeking assurance that district email accounts weren’t used to solicit support for Prop R — a $43.2 million bond issue that failed at the polls April 3 — or to endorse any of the School Board candidates. Such activity could run afoul of election law.

 

A Much More Supportive View of the Cronon FOI Response

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The New Yorker weighs in with a laudatory post about the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s response to the FOI request. As I wrote in an earlier post, I think the response created some novel arguments not reflected by the state’s existing exemptions. The question now is whether the requester is satisfied with the response and the documents produced by it.

 

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The UW-Madison Response: Absolutely Fascinating

Well, the UNiversity of Madison-Wisconsin complied with the request for a noted history professor’s e-mails — sort of, kind of.

Here is the Chancellor’s message to the campus:

And here is the official letter from counsel for the University of Wisconsin.

The money graf:

You should further note that the e-mails that we have reviewed contain absolutely no evidence of political motivation, contact from individuals outside normal academic channels or inappropriate conduct on the part of Professor Cronon.  The university finds his conduct, as evidenced in the e-mails, beyond reproach in every respect.  He has used his university e-mail account appropriately and legitimately.   He has not used his university e-mail account for any inappropriate political conduct.  In fact, none of the e-mails contained any reference whatsoever to any of the specific political figures that you identified (except Governor Scott Walker), nor do they in any way reference the proposed recall efforts.

But I also was quite interested in the following reason for partial denial of the request:

5. Intellectual communications among scholars.  Faculty members like Professor Cronon often use e-mail to develop and share their thoughts with one another.  The confidentiality of such discussions is vital to scholarship and to the mission of this university. Faculty members must be afforded privacy in these exchanges in order to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.  The consequence for our state of making such communications public will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities that can guarantee them the privacy and confidentiality that is necessary in academia.  For these reasons, we have concluded that the public interest in intellectual communications among scholars as reflected in Professor Cronon’s e-mails is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications.

I just took a quick look at Wisconsin’s exemptions, and I am not seeing this one. This is one of those Show-Me moments that Dave and I always talk about: “Can you show me where in Wisconsin law it says this stuff is exempt?”

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The New York Times weighs in on the Wisconsin email issue…

Nothing here to advance the story, but love the quote from Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council:

“I’m pleased to see the Republicans making use of the open records law because they are as entitled to it as everyone else in the state,” said Bill Lueders, the president of theWisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group that supports open records and open meeting laws.

Don’t Miss This Online Chat Opportunity!

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Sunshine Review leads these really great weekly #FOIAchat discussions on Twitter on freedom of information act issues. Our turnout includes open government advocates, public officials, and professional journalists.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ryan Gabrielson from California Watch will answer questions and speak on the topic “From Tip to Story: How to Write an Investigative Piece”  this Friday at 1 CT.  Gabrielson has extensive experience obtaining documents from local governments using FOIA.

Gabrielson was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2009 for his reporting on how a popular sheriff’s focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigation of violent crime and other aspects of public safety in Mesa, Arizona.

 

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An Update to the Charlotte Observer request…

They dropped it, citing the uproar….I am glad. These non-journalistic flights of fancy promise more blowback to FOI than scrutiny of government.

 

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They Didn’t Ask for Paper….

The Anniston City Council today plans to discuss taking legal action to collect $1,855.40 from The Anniston Star for open records the newspaper requested, but never received in the form requested.

“If the Council is playing games, we’ll take their pointed jab in good spirit,” Star publisher Brandt Ayers said. “However, on substance, there is no debt; nothing in the law or common sense requires us to pay for something that we specifically and repeatedly said we did not want.”

The Star made a written request on Jan. 14, 2010, for e-mails sent by Councilmen Ben Little, Herbert Palmore, John Spain and David Dawson as well as Mayor Gene Robinson over the last three months of 2009. The request specified the documents be sent electronically to Gmail.com accounts set up to receive them.

“We do NOT request printouts of the material,” the request specified.

In February 2010, city manager Don Hoyt delivered to Star editor Bob Davis, who made the request, more than 800 pages of printed and redacted e-mails along with a bill for $1,855.40. Broken down, that bill includes a 50-cent-per-copy fee for 344 pages from an undated earlier invoice, a fee for $10 an hour plus 5 cents per copy for 818 pages of e-mails, $768 for the Hoyt’s time, $412 for legal fees, and $262.50 for services of the city’s Internet provider.

Read more:Anniston Star – Anniston council would charge newspaper 1 855 for public records

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Rav rave: Get copies of company complaints to FTC

I rave about Michael Ravnitzky (mikerav@verizon.net). He’s gathered thousands of federal records and knows his way around FOIA probably more than anyone else. He recently posted tips on the FOI Listserv on how to get copies of complaints against companies that have been filed with the Federal Trade Commission. This is how, in his words:

“Just send a letter, fax or email to:

Freedom of Information Act Request
Office of General Counsel
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20580
Fax number for the FOIA branch is (202) 326-2477
The e-mail address is FOIA@FTC.GOV

In the letter indicate that you would like copies of complaints mentioning a
particular company or companies, or any organization.

Or else, in your letter, indicate you would like a copy of complaints
mentioning a particular product or keyword.

If you are a news media requester, you should identify that fact and that
the request is being submitted for news reporting purposes.”

Create ‘Doc Squad’ in your state

ProPublica is creating a cool “Reporting Network Doc Squad” to establish people around the country who can request records from state governments as needed. This is particularly important because five states don’t respond to out-of-state requests (Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia and Delaware). These rules that prohibit out-of-state requests are archaic and should be dropped.

ProPublica inspires a great idea for doing statewide stories using records requests. It can be daunting driving around the state asking for records. So create  your own state’s Doc Squad with access pros throughout the state to gather records for large-scale projects. Might be a good initiative for a coalition for open government in your state.

Mississippi to shorten request response time

I see the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to shorten the amount of time an agency has to respond to a records request, from 14 days to seven days (see story).

“Right now it’s 14 days, two weeks; that’s about the longest in the country and frankly in most cases it’s too long to wait,” Mississippi state Sen. David Blount said.

Yeah, he’s right. Fourteen days is WAY too long to get a simple response. So why does the most powerful government in the world need 20 days to respond to a FOIA request? Time to change the response time at the federal level too.

I’ve found in my research that five days is reasonable. In Arizona, where there is no statutory deadline for response, agencies respond on average in about five days (when I sent requests to all school districts and all law enforcement agencies). If Arizona had a seven-day deadline it is likely we would get responses even later. In my opinion, any statutory deadline longer than five days is bad for citizens. There should either be no deadline or make it three business days. After all, it doesn’t take that long to look at a request and then provide a response, even if it is “we need another week or two to round up the records.”

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