Fees abuse and redaction, a dangerous mix

Two major FOIA cases have come out of Colorado in the last few days. One, a federal case based on a four year old public records request, has local news station, 9NEWS pitted against the Department of Labor and the Transportation Security Administration over records relating to the transfer of employees to new positions who were already receiving injury benefits, thus resulting in them receiving two salaries (More here…). The other request involves a request to the City of Fort Collins from Face the State, a non-profit, for emails which did not make it into the cities automatic disclosure database online (More here…). While at face, these two requests neither seem out of the ordinary or in any way related, the article on the Fort Collins case is quick to point out that they have one major commonality: both cases have resulted in extremely high fees requested for records due to the necessity of staff time to comb over the records and redact sensitive information. The Department of Labor has requested $1,181,660 and the City wants $1,600 to review 7000 emails.

While it is contestable whether or not public agencies should even charge for records requests, as tax dollars were used to compile the records (for more on this argument see the Oregon AG’s 2010 report), we at WikiFOIA prefer to give public bodies the benefit of the doubt when it comes to fees. So long as fees are used to recuperate the costs of the physical duplication of public records and not used as a source of income or method for restricting access, then they are within the intention of the law. However, more and more public entities abuse these fees for their own purposes and few enough realize that things like search fees and redaction fees should not be used (see also, The economic nature of transparency). Records requests should be responded to efficiently and cost effectively and it is the responsibility of public agencies to establish methods and systems to achieve these goals prior to an individuals request. States should consider preventing the abuse of redaction and search fees by restricting fees to the actual cost of duplication and nothing more. In addition, individual public bodies should develop systems to redact private information up front, and not after a request, resulting in delayed responses and additional fees. With these two measures, governing bodies will be able to more efficiently respond to public records requests, without resorting to exorbitant fees and delayed responses.

To read more about fees structures across the country, see: How much do public records cost?

~Joshua Meyer
Editor of WikiFOIA

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