A Simple Request – A Small Town Experiment in Open Government
Although we at the Sunlight Foundation focus our work on the technical and procedural barriers to transparency in our federal government, many citizens are actively at work, dealing with these issues on a state and local level. Our guest blogger, Darrell Flood, has a history of advocating for online, real-time government information in his home state, Oregon. Today he shares with us his experience tackling another bureaucratic challenge to open information in the small town of Lafayette.
It seemed like a such a simple request: city council newsletters sent to each and every home in Lafayette, Oregon, free of charge. I wanted access to them electronically in the original black and white format, not on the colored paper they usually send them on. I had been getting requests from visually impaired citizens telling me they couldn’t read them very well. I thought, how hard could that be? They were created on a computer.
So, I went to talk to our city staff. I didn’t think there would be a problem. After all, our new city administrator had already told me he would give me over 3,000 electronic documents he had access to, free of charge, just to get me off the case for a little while.
Little did I know there was already a power struggle going on between him and his assistant — the assistant being the same person who is the ruler of all that is paper at city hall.
The initial conversation started fine. The assistant said, “Sure, no problem.” She had them all in a single file folder. “Just submit that records request, Darrell, and I’ll get right on it.” So, I filled out the request as is required in our little town. When I got home, I realized I forgot to tell her to just email them to me that way there would be no hard costs. Or, if the file was too big to email, she could give me a call so I could come with my USB drive and we could copy them that way. I emailed her that message and went on my merry way, not realizing the storm that was a brewing.
A few days later, I got an email from the assistant. She advised that the cost would be $5.00 to access the files electronically because they’d have to be burned onto a CD. I thought, why? These were mailed to every home here free of charge. They were already electronic. Even scanning should only take a few moments. Why a charge at all, especially since the city administrator said I could have so many documents for free?
I filed an appeal asking why I was charged. I had asked for them in an email and would have been willing to provide a transfer format. The documents I requested were for everyone to view. The city has stated over and over they don’t have the web space to store historical information. I was providing a service. I met all the criteria as required by law.
Well, two weeks went by and there was no response from the city. So, I contacted the district attorney who contacted the city administrator and finally got a response. The answer was no. They would not waive the fee. I then filed an appeal with the district attorney. I wrote him, he wrote the city, the city wrote him, and around the red, white and blue flagpole we went.
After the city explained to the district attorney that if they granted this waiver, I might ask for a waiver in the future, the district attorney told me, “No.” He did offer that if we wanted to challenge him, we could certainly take the case to circuit court with a filing fee of hundreds of dollars. But I thought, is a judge really going to rule against the district attorney?
So, I sat and I thought. Ironically, during this same time period the city attorney was using their own resources to try and see if they could block me from posting documents I had already received from the city, such as attorney bills and anything with the city logo. Their argument was that city logos are trademarked. It was an embarrassing moment for them when they were found to be wrong.
Now that all the attorney bills have come through the pipeline and what follows is what we learned from our experiment:
- The city paid the city attorney $1,210.00 to fight us on this request.
- The district attorney had never received a request for a waiver of fees before.
- The district attorney had to teach the city attorney what the process was – of course the attorney charged the city (/citizens) for their learning time. These would be the same public records experts we all pay for.
- The district attorney’s receptionist didn’t even know if she was authorized to receive paperwork requesting an appeal for a waiver of fees. That was its own ordeal, just trying to get her to take it.
- The assistant really needs some training on the use of office equipment. Turns out it took her 45 minutes to scan 40 pages as a single file.
- But mostly, the city paid the city attorney $1,210.00 to fight us on this request.
All of this time and effort to make me pay $5.00 for something that had already been distributed free of charge. So, I paid the money. The CD contained 40 pages. Only 38 newsletters. And, one of them was on – here it comes, wait for it – colored paper.
Signed, your Public=Online research scientist in Oregon,
The mice in the experiment:
(Now former) City Administrator D. Justin Boone
Assistant to the City Administrator Trena McManus
Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry
City Attorneys Jordan, Schrader, Ramis PC