President’s Column City shouldn’t charge big labor fees for public records

By Betsy Russell

Recently, after receiving several complaints from members of the media about their experiences making public records requests of the City of Boise, Press Club board member Allen Derr and I met with Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.

The mayor graciously met with us for more than an hour, and discussed our concerns in depth. A city attorney and city spokesman Adam Park also participated in the meeting.

Mayor Bieter was quite concerned that we thought the city was taking a troubling new hard line on public records requests from the news media, and said that was not his intent at all. He also assured us that the city would not try to stake out a legal argument to withhold from the public all draft ordinances, though it denied one request regarding a draft ordinance for legal reasons unrelated to that principle.

Another big concern we discussed was the city’s recent practice of charging large amounts for labor when complying with public records requests – amounts that in one recent request topped $500, prompting the reporter and station in question to consider dropping the request.

Bieter defended the charging of labor costs, though we debated the issue at length. In the end, he agreed to consider halving the charge in that station’s case, and to work with city staff to find ways to get information out without running up big labor charges.

However, some weeks later, the mayor decided not to reduce the large fee at all. The station swallowed hard and paid it.

Here is a letter I recently wrote to the mayor on this issue:

Dear Mayor Bieter:

Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me and Allen Derr on Sept. 30, to discuss our concerns about the City of Boise’s recent handling of public records requests from the news media. We appreciate your taking the time to discuss our concerns with us, and were heartened by your assurances that the city wants to be open and transparent, isn’t launching any new policy to get tough on media public records requests, and wants to be responsive to media requests.

We were quite disappointed, however, to learn that despite your commitment to consider substantially reducing the $500-plus fee the city had decided to charge a local television station for labor for a public records request regarding city contracts, you opted in the end not to reduce the fee at all, and to charge that full amount.

Mr. Mayor, in my entire reporting career in Idaho – 24 years – I have never been charged for labor for a public records request. Though the law allows for that, that clause was added (over our objections) supposedly to deal with huge requests from lawyers and such with the potential to bog down public agencies and prevent them from doing their jobs.

As I told you, I believe responding to legitimate public records requests from the media for the purposes of reporting news about the functioning of government is part of the city’s job, and part of the job of city employees. As we discussed, it’s entirely possible to work with the reporter on a public records request that, as phrased, may seem unduly time-consuming for city workers, to perhaps narrow the request and perhaps find ways that the reporter could do some of that work, be it contacting various departments, digging through files or copying or scanning documents.

As we discussed, the current state of the news media industry in Idaho is severely depressed, and it is rare indeed that any reporter can afford $100 in fees for any public records request. I told you that I had recently paid $76 for a  public records request to a state agency, and it required notification to my city editor, a big gulp, and a quick though reluctant decision to pay up. That request was for 760 pages of photocopies of records that did not exist electronically. It did not include ANY charge for labor. In the vast majority of public records requests that I file, there is NO fee charged at all.

On behalf of the Idaho Press Club, I’d like to strongly encourage you to reconsider the city’s approach to charging labor costs on public records requests from the news media. It is in all of our interests to have good, accurate and in-depth reporting about the city from the news media. Throwing up insurmountable financial barriers will prevent this, and that’s a disservice to the citizens the city serves.

Thank you again for taking the time to meet with us.

Sincerely,

Betsy Russell

President, Idaho Press Club

Betsy Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review newspaper, and is president of the Idaho Press Club.