St. Louis Public Radio has filed a formal complaint against the city of Ferguson for violating Missouri’s open records law by attempting to charge unreasonable amounts for public documents. Ferguson wants more than $2,000 before handing over the public records requested.
On Sept. 23, I wrote to Ferguson officials, asking for certain records – most of them emails. State law is explicit that these records requests have to be answered within three business days.
Ferguson didn’t do that. Instead, after eight days, Ferguson responded and said it could not begin to retrieve the records until Oct. 10. Then, a few days later, Ferguson City Clerk Megan Asikainen said the city would not begin looking for the records until the station paid $2,050.
“I will not start this project until I have received the initial deposit,” Asikainen wrote. “There is a tremendous amount of work involved with researching whether records exist which are responsive to your requests, analyzing the records, redacting the records as necessary, and any copying or duplication that will be needed.”
Asikainen explained that Ferguson is outsourcing its responsibilities to provide open records to a for-profit company called Acumen Consulting. According to an agreement between Ferguson and Acumen, the company is charging a base fee of $500 plus an hourly rate of $135 an hour to search emails.
The sunshine law limits what a government agency can charge to produce open records. The logic is that taxpayers have already paid for the records to be made, so getting a copy shouldn’t cost an exorbitant amount of money.
Here’s what the law says:
"It's ridiculous," Adam Marshall, the Jack Nelson legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said.
"Missouri's law expressly allows for agencies to waive fees for media requestors, especially in the public interest. And I can't imagine what would be more in the public interest than requesting information about what's going on in Ferguson."
On Tuesday, St. Louis Public Radio filed a formal complaint to Attorney General Chris Koster’s office and asked him to weigh in for this story. His office said it does not have a comment at this time.
Marshall, whose job is dealing with open records requests, says he hasn't encountered an hourly rate like this one. Marshall says keeping records behind a pay-wall of thousands of dollars won't help build trust in Ferguson's officials.
"To charge the media for this basic function is repugnant to the idea of self-governance," he said. "We have seen a lot of public distrust and questions about how the city of Ferguson and the state of Missouri are responding to the events there, and part of that distrust, I have to imagine, is from a lack of information."
Ferguson also charged the Associated Press an identical hourly bill, something the Radio Television Digital News Association, a media advocacy organization, called a “tactic of delay and intimidation,” which clearly appears “to be an effort by city officials to discourage or even eliminate efforts by the media to continue its investigation into this incident.”
Ferguson officials didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.
Editor's note: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the ACLU are co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit with Chris McDaniel against the Missouri Department of Corrections for withholding public records.
Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel