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Big bills to view public documents discourage access

RICHMOND, Va. — 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 email and phone conversations 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 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. The reason, according to officials: The 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 money or the time 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?”

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