Should an Open Records Request Cost $33/hour?



Iowa Juvenile Home

Investigating the Iowa Juvenile Home cost The Des Moines Register almost $32,000

Sticker shock… I’m sure that is what The Des Moines Register felt when it received the $31,776 bill for its open records request looking into the solitary confinements at the Iowa Juvenile Home.  This was quality journalism that provided a valuable public service exposing what is, I believe, an unconstitutional practice at worst and shoddy treatment of high-risk girls at best.  I weighed in on this story here.

Jennifer Jacobs and Jason Noble reports:

A human services administrator who helps oversee the facility said the newspaper would have to pay $31,776 for the state to fulfill its open-records request for a list of all solitary confinements — minus the children’s names and other identifying information — during 2011 and 2012.

The state charges two separate sets of fees: one to retrieve and copy documents, and one for the cost of a lawyer to determine whether those records should be released at all.

When Branstad was campaigning for a comeback to the governor’s office in 2010, he denounced his Democratic opponent, Gov. Chet Culver, for allegedly imposing excessive fees related to the legal reviews of records sought by the public and the media. In 2010, Branstad said: “I believe the cost should be borne by the attorney general’s office.”…

…“These are not legal fees,” the governor answered. “These are just the cost of the time to get the information. We’re not imposing any legal fees.”

The Department of Human Services official who quoted the $32,000 fee said the cost is related to spending 993 hours to collect the data at a rate of $32 an hour.

“I want us to be as open and transparent as possible,” Branstad said Tuesday. “But if somebody is strictly on a witch hunt or a fishing expedition and they want the taxpayers to pay all the cost of doing their research, that’s another thing. But it’s a delicate balance.”

The Branstad administration said that they charge $33/hour after the first three hours.

I have mixed feelings about this.  I certainly know that open records requests can be abused, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s administration was besieged with requests to the point it caused gridlock.  So I appreciate Governor Branstad’s desire to find balance and to be a good steward of taxpayer funds.

That said – $33/hour?  993 hours to collect this information?  Lawyers’ review as to whether they “should” release records.  No, a open records request was filed, you fulfill it – period.  Redact names and identifying information to abide by appropriate federal and state laws that protect kids’ privacy when they are in situations like this, but you release the records.  It shouldn’t take a lawyer to do this.

Taking almost 1000 hours to complete this tells me their record keeping system needs work as well.  While it shouldn’t be free, $33/ hour rate is onerous.  These are public servants.  It isn’t a matter of government doing a journalist’s research for them; it is providing access to information that can’t be obtained any other way.  This hinders the media’s ability to hold state government accountable.  It sends the message to Go ahead and file your open records request, only if it isn’t too extensive, and if it is only if you can afford it.

Governor Branstad should consider if this practice is really in the spirit of what he campaigned on.  I’d submit that it is not.

Photo credit: John Speer – The Toledo Chronicle

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  • Scott Bailey

    I wonder what the breakdown of the $33 would show. If they’re using existing employees, then they are paying an hourly wage plus full benefits. They’re probably overpriced union employees at that. It could be that they’re assigning more than one person to acquire the information. Two people with a combined 1000 hours could easily add up to $33/hour. Further, if they’re existing employees, then they’re not doing the job that they were hired to do, whatever that may be. It could be that they’re hiring temps which, again, could add up to $33/hour pretty quickly. And it’s not just collection of the data. They also have to copy and redact it. I’m assuming that the attorney review the data to ensure privacy laws aren’t violated as opposed to determining “whether or not the data should be released” in a broad sense. I think some further investigative journalism might be warranted to find out why it’s $33/hour rather than opining that it’s unreasonable without having all the facts.

    • http://shanevanderhart.com/ Shane Vander Hart

      Maybe so, but I wouldn’t be able to foot the bill I’d get to find out :).

      • Scott Bailey

        I’m thinking the DM Register has deep pockets if they truly want to report on all the facts. Or, maybe the governor’s office should explain to the media why the cost is so high.