March 16, 2015

The Associated Press

In advance of Sunshine Week, The Associated Press compiled a state-by-state open-records update that includes several transparency nightmares, including a Florida sheriff’s office that wanted $399,000 to search for agency emails containing gay slurs and a state Department of Motor Vehicles that demanded $19,950 for a specialized public records search.

Here are five cases that stand out:

California: The state DMV asked for nearly $20,000 to fulfill an open-records request from The Associated Press seeking to determine “whether poor people had their driver’s licenses suspended at a disproportionate rate.”

The justification for the pricetag? The DMV claimed the request would require 120 hours of special programming at $135 per hour:

The AP sought a meeting with the DMV’s public information and technology staff, but the agency never responded. DMV spokesman Artemio Armenta said the agency does not conduct research for the public and is protected by law from doing so. For requests covered by the state Public Records Act, the DMV charges for copying or the cost of computer programming and document retrieval.

The AP submitted a narrowed request and was given a new estimate of $377 for a copy of a statistical report. Ultimately, the AP decided not to pay for the report because it was unlikely to contain a breakdown of license suspensions.

Florida: The Broward Sheriff’s Office wanted $399,000 and four years to fulfill a request from the executive editor of the South Florida Gay News seeking “every email for a one-year period that contained various derogatory terms for gays”:

He said each employee’s email would have to be searched individually and that the request would require the hiring of a full-time staff person.

The sheriff’s office says each employee email is archived and stored on tape, which has to be converted to an Outlook file.

Iowa: The Iowa Department of Corrections quoted The Marshall Project a cost of $2,020 to “review, redact and copy” reports about sexual violence against inmates:

The Marshall Project had sought reports that were submitted to the federal government under the Prison Rape Elimination Act from 2004 to 2013. Several states, including some more populous than Iowa, provided them free of charge or for relatively small fees. But the Iowa Department of Corrections said it would take an employee 108 hours to review, redact and copy 2,672 records that were responsive to the request. The agency said it would cost $15 per hour for the employee’s time, plus 15 cents for copies of each page, for a total of $2,020.

The Marshall Project disputed the high cost of redaction, which the corrections department said was “necessary to protect the identities of victims.”

Oregon: The University of Oregon originally wanted $2,163 to provide “records related to a nonprofit group trying to bring a major track meet to campus” requested by The (Eugene, Oregon) Register-Guard:

After the newspaper complained the fees hindered news coverage in the public interest, interim University President Scott Coltrane waived the fee, but much of the information was blacked out. The newspaper has appealed the redactions to the district attorney.

Virginia: AP journalists in California regularly get calendar information from Gov. Jerry Brown. But in Virginia, “officials told the AP earlier this year that it would need to pay about $500 upfront” to get copies of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s calendar because “staff would have had to search, review and possibly redact certain calendar entries.”

Virginia law allows reasonable charges not to exceed the actual cost of accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for the requested records. However, agencies cannot charge extraneous fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records.

Here’s the AP’s full report, which highlights open-records problems and solutions in 18 states.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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