Reporter Sara Stites of the Kansas City Star profiles two cities, and two citizens, who are frustrated by the current open records process.
The city of Fairway said that it couldn’t provide one year’s worth of legal bills to a citizen requestor until it first went over all the bills to separate out the public information appearing on the bills from the privileged information–a process they claimed would cost $1,480.50.
$1,480.50 to look at a year’s worth of legal bills paid by a small city in Kansas? That’s obviously prohibitive.
This request was abandoned when the requestor learned the cost.
Although the requestor didn’t get what he or she sought, that hasn’t stopped city officials from being in a state of high dudgeon about the fact that someone wanted copies of public documents.
“We have a very small staff,” said Kathi Robards, Fairway city administrator and clerk. “Last year they ran us ragged, just with these requests.”
Fairway has now started logging open records requests. The log is distributed to the City Council and includes the name of the person making the request, what they asked for and when they picked up the documents.
What this means, in practice, is that information about which citizens want records becomes readily known, while the records they’re asking for remain secret because of prohibitive costs.
The log shows how much staff time it took, in dollars, to deal with requests that aren’t paid for and picked up by the requester. Ultimately, other taxpayers pay for that time, Robards said.
A proactive way to handle this would be to make significant chunks of information available on the city’s website without anyone having to ask for it. Surely this information should include how much the city is paying in legal bills, and which law firms are receiving those payments. Voters are entitled to this information.
Sometimes, Winn said, especially in times of turmoil, cities can experience the “local curmudgeon” piling up records requests just to be a nuisance.
Voters are especially entitled to this information without being insulted in the local newspaper for their curmudgeonly nature while they are simultaneously not getting the records they ask for due to excessive fees.
That’s not how Winn, a paid spokesperson for the League of Kansas Municipalities sees it, though:
Not only do fees reimburse the city for expenses, but they can also weed out serious requests from those filed just to be difficult, Winn said.
I recall that during the Salem witch trials, it was believed that if witches survived dunking, it meant they were innocent. The ones that died of drowning were guilty.
Similarly, in Kansas, the city bureaucrats have figured out that if you say you want to know how much which law firms were paid by your small city in one year, if you don’t cough up the $1,480.50 it would allegedly cost to obtain those records, then you didn’t really want the records. You were just trying to be difficult.