Monday, March 16, 2015

Is $20 An Hour Charge for Public Records Aimed at Preventing Hoosier Bloggers From Investigating Government Corruption?

In Senate Bill 500, a bill labeled as supposedly aimed at " education deregulation" is a completely unrelated section that allows for a public agency to charge up to $20 an hour for search time involved in obtaining public records. 

This surcharge supposedly to just apply to searches over 2 hours. But as anyone who has ever been involved in open records request knows, it is impossible to tell what the agency is doing behind closed doors.  Many records that should take minutes to produce, takes weeks, even months. Often they claim the need to redact documents of confidential information which is often about removing information that might be embarrassing for the company. Are we supposed to pay for the redaction time?  The bill suggests that the only thing the agency can't bill for is "computer processing time."

What is most shocking to me is the response of the Hoosier State Press Association in supporting the bill: USA Today reports:
However, the bill would allow someone to receive records that already are in an electronic format via email. Under current law, an agency can refuse to send electronic 
Stephen Key, Executive Director, Hoosier State Press Assn.
copies, forcing a requester to pick up records in person and pay the copying fee. 
The Hoosier State Press Association says the benefit of getting records in an easy format outweighs the potential negatives of a search fee; the organization has not opposed the bill. 
HSPA Executive Director Steve Key said he doesn't believe the fee will deter someone from making a large request, but said it could "discourage fishing expeditions where you just want to go through and find everything."
I don't buy the electronic records reason cited by Mr. Key.  The benefit of getting electronic documents emailed is extremely minimal benefit as opposed to giving agencies a tool to avoid compliance with open records laws by charging $20 an hour for search.  When obligated to provide electronic information, most agencies prefer to email the information as doing so easier than burning a disc to provide the information to the citizen.   But anyone who has dealt with government agencies knows that those agencies will jump at the chance to utilize the $20 an hour charge to punish those citizen journalists, i.e. bloggers, who in the internet age have largely replaced the mainstream media when it comes to breaking stories culled by going through public records.

Indeed, a desire to eliminate competition might well be the true motivation of the Hoosier Press Association's support of the bill.  The mainstream media can afford search fees imposed by agencies.  But the citizen journalist, blogging for free, can't pay a $100 bill issued by the agency for a public records search.  If the bloggers can't pay those fees, then they can't continue to break the stories, repeatedly scooping the mainstream media when it comes to uncovering political corruption and other wrongdoing.  Imagine depending entirely on the Indianapolis Star to uncover stories of local political corruption. Scary isn't it?

Thanks so much to the Indiana Law Blog for continually keeping abreast of this story.  Also, Advance Indiana's Gary Welsh has written about this story.


Steve Hofer said...

Paul, you are absolutely right. I know it is a federal issue, but the Clinton email situation is a good example of this. Clinton's email should have been easily accessed and referenced as part of an organized system. Because she chose to operate her own private server, if you are to gather up all of the emails that she sent to all government employees, which would be presumed to be federal records under the FOIA but subject to various exemptions, one would have to write customized code and search numerous record systems to compile what should have been there originally. As a practical matter, paying for that time will shield the records from public review. It may also mean they never become part of our historical record like they should.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you embarrassed that most of your readers are imbeciles? You must be proud, Paul.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Anon 5:23, I didn't notice that "imbeciles" visited my blog until 5:23 pm today.

Flogger said...

I wonder if this an ALEC template?? This charge could have a nasty effect as you say on citizens that want to perform a Watchdog function. Add in the the Cable Giants wanting to have fast lanes on the Internet, and the Citizen Blogger would be at a big disadvantage.

If this legislation does slide through The Stars budget would be $40 at most as they perform very little investigative reporting.