A troubling bill in Wisconsin would cost FOI requesters dearly…

From the Department of Bad FOI Laws comes this nightmare:

[Wisconsin] Government agencies could once again attempt to charge hundreds – even thousands – of dollars to release public records about how police deal with and report on crime, under a draft bill in the Assembly. The bill also would allow agencies to extend those charges to other areas, such as records on taxpayer subsidies to businesses.

The proposal seeks to undo a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling last summer that found the City of Milwaukee could not charge the Journal Sentinel for the time its employees spent deleting from public records some information they considered confidential.

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2010 open records request based on a Journal Sentinel attempt to audit two weeks of incident reports for offenses such as assault, burglary and theft. The department, which had already produced copies of 100 incident reports for free, switched gears and told the news organization the additional 750 reports would cost about $4,000 and would take police more than nine months to produce.

While the lawsuit was moving through the courts, the news organization asked for much larger crime data files from the state Justice Department and the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office. Both agencies provided those records quickly and at minimal cost.

Ultimately, the Journal Sentinel reported that police had misreported thousands of violent assaults, rapes, robberies and burglaries as less serious offenses, and failed to correct the problems or publicly disclose them.

A consultant hired by the Fire and Police commission largely confirmed the findings. The consultant, who for months publicly backed Police Chief Edward Flynn and his department’s handling of the flawed crime figures, said he found no evidence of conspiracy to alter the numbers.

The sponsor of the draft bill is Rep. Garey Bies, chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee and a former chief sheriff’s deputy in Door County. Bies said he hadn’t talked with the department or its police officers union about the bill. He said he wrote it after learning of the Supreme Court decision and talking to local officials in his district, who were concerned about being saddled with unexpected costs.

“I don’t want to see the taxpayer stuck with a bill from someone who’s maybe on a hunting expedition,” he said.

He said that most redactions should cost little or nothing, and that if newspapers are seeking records that cost thousands of dollars to redact, they must be making broad searches. Asked specifically about the costs charged to the Journal Sentinel for the Milwaukee police records, Bies said the newspaper “maybe should have been keeping track of that to start with.”

Bies said that he had not checked with legislative leaders about whether they backed his idea and that he expected difficulty in getting it to the floor.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said that in the past government officials have abused the fees that are allowed under the law. He predicted more would do so if the Legislature provided another avenue for charging fees.

“We consider it a tax on the public’s right to know. Public officials are already paid to do their jobs,” Lueders said. “Why should they get paid extra when they get paid to do this job already?”

Make no mistake: this would represent a huge blow to FOI requesters, and would open a cavernous new loophole to state FOI regimes everywhere, as state after state will move to enact similar provisions. This is a DEFCON 5 threat, people…

The most daunting day-to-day obstacle to FOI: money…

A pal of mine at the Columbia Daily Tribune offers a timely reminder of the frustrations requesters face daily when seeking information….

UM President Tim Wolfe has had some 90 suggestions sent to him through the online suggestion box he launched late last month.

I know this because I put in a Sunshine Law request for them. And, once again, university officials are asking the Tribune to pay for the time they say is needed to separate anything that might be exempted from the open records law.

The total charge for my request is $55.30.

That includes $9.75 for 10 minutes to locate the information. How do they come up with that? Apparently, they’re going to ask someone who makes $50.70 an hour to find the records (which are all sent through one online portal).

Then, they want 10 cents a page for the 90 e-mails for copying costs, even though I don’t want paper but rather emails so I’m not sure what “copies” they’re referring to.

What we’re not willing to pay for is the $36.55 they say is needed to separate closed and open records. That’s because we do not believe the law requires the public or news outlet making a request to pay for separating closed material from open documents.

 

Wisconsin High Court: No, Agencies Can Not Charge for Redaction….

The Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday against the City of Milwaukee and for the Journal Sentinel in a dispute over whether a government body can charge for its employees to delete information deemed confidential from public records. Reversing a Milwaukee County judge’s ruling, the high court said Wisconsin’s 30-year-old public records law has never allowed public agencies to charge requesters for redacting information from records. The city argued it could charge for redacting under provisions of the law that allow fees to be charged for locating and copying records. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and said such fees could be used by governmental bodies to effectively deny release of records. “This case is not about a direct denial of public access to records, but the issue in the present case directly implicates the accessibility of government records,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote in the decision. “The greater the fee imposed on a requester of a public record, the less likely the requester will be willing and able to successfully make a record request.”

$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.

 

South Carolina Bill Would Make it Easier, Cheaper to Get Public Records

A bill sponsored by S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would make it cheaper and faster for citizens to get copies of public documents using the state Freedom of Information Act, officials from the S.C. Press Association said.

The measure passed out of a House subcommittee Wednesday morning,

“We’ve heard from numerous people, and legislators have their own problems with this,” Taylor said. “This would bring some peace to the law. We are urging in the legislation that governments would be entitled to supply the information electronically when they can.”

Some government agencies throw up barriers to FOI requests, Taylor said, by trying to charge for staff time. The proposed measure would allow only a fee comparable to those charged commercially and no fee at all for electronic format.

Currently, there is no time limit for FOI compliance. Taylor’s bill would require that the requested materials be produced in no less than 30 days. However, Taylor said that a request for information going back more than two years would add another 45 days for an agency to fulfill the request.

Ohio Supreme Court denies fee-seeker dough

From the Columbus Dispatch:

Following the lead of state lawmakers, the Ohio Supreme Court has forbidden the collection of damages for illegal destruction of public records when money, rather than access to records, is the main motivation in filing lawsuits.

A party is not “aggrieved” and entitled to damages when his or her objective is not to obtain records but to seek the cash penalties accompanying the destruction of public records, the justices ruled in an opinion released today.

The court’s ruling involves a case from New Philadelphia, where Timothy Rhodes filed a lawsuit seeking nearly $5 million in damages over the illegal destruction of old tape recordings of police dispatch calls between 1975 and 1995.

A jury refused to give Rhodes any money, finding he was not aggrieved because his primary interest was money, not gaining access to records. He also had sought old police and 911 tape recordings from other communities.

When Lucy says she hasn’t seen anything this idiotic in a long time…that’s saying a lot!

A small, much used Xerox photocopier in the li...

Image via Wikipedia

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a shameless attempt to wring fees from data:

Journalists have elbowed into Cuyahoga County’s dispute over the cost of CDs loaded with deeds and mortgages, arguing that the public should have the databases at cost.

The county wants to charge more than $200,000 for CDs of property records, based on a state law that mandates a $2-per-page fee to photocopy or fax documents. Officials have spent nearly $25,000 in tax dollars on lawyers to defend that position.

Fine, two journalism organizations say. But the CDs aren’t paper; and they’re not photocopies.

“This case is not terribly complicated,” writes the Ohio Newspaper Association. “The Cuyahoga County Recorder is not making a photocopy of any record. And it cannot, therefore, charge a fee that would make a valuable database inaccessible to the public.”

The association joined the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Ohio Land Title Association in filing briefs this week in the Ohio Supreme Court.

The journalism organizations are getting involved now, they say, because of the potentialramifications. If the court decides the county can charge $2 per page on CDs, journalists would not be able to afford databases that make analysis and investigative journalism possible.

“I have not seen anything this idiotic in a really long time,” Reporters Committee attorney Lucy Dalglish said in a phone interview. “You really have to work hard to interpret a statute that badly.”

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