When open records requests get expensive

We talked about open records requests more than a week ago. One of the things we talked about is what entities can charge for open records: 1) time for employee putting the request together 2.) copies among other things.

Here’s an interesting case study with Gawker asking for emails from the city of McKinney for ” (Eric)Casebolt’s records and any emails about his conduct sent or received by McKinney Police Department employees.”

The news organization received a response to their open records request. They can get the info for $79,000.

Whoa! That’s a lot of money. But if you notice, they made a big mistake…they made their request pretty general.

Mistake 1) They didn’t give a range of time or the time is too long

If they wanted emails about the officers conduct about it the pool incident specifically, they should have asked for records between June and July 2015. A two month range. That limits the amount of  “employee time” it takes to put your search together.

But they asked for email going back to 2005! Whoa! That’s 10 years. That’s a lot of email to go through! (See Mistake 4)

Mistake 2) Putting it all in one letter

If you have a big request, it’s been my experience to separate them into smaller requests. With no time range, this is pretty big. I would have asked for emails in one. In other request, I’d ask for the  personnel records but….

Mistake 3) Not knowing what to ask for

Now this is tricky. Technically an entity can say that there is confidential information in those files. But not here. The City of McKinney has chosen to open the files. That’s not without precedent. The City of Dallas vs The Dallas Times Herald case from 1988 — the attorney general rules that some internal affairs records from the police department could be released to the public.

However, do they want the whole file? Part of the file? A certain paper in the file? It’s important to know the name of the document you want specifically and put that in your request. It looks like from this request, that they want to see any past incidents. Perhaps it’s best if they ask for the officer’s complaint file.

Also, know in what format things are kept. If keep everything in paper, know that you’ll incur expensive with labor having to scan those documents into PDFs. If it is done electronically, know what they are using — Word, Excel, some proprietary system (which really doesn’t exist but they’ll use that excuse anyway) — then you know that it’s a matter of search and find or saving things on a thumb drive.

Mistake 4) When they give a suggestion, consider it.

In the letter from the city, they suggested to narrow the focus of their request to a time period of to certain employees. That makes sense. But just because they suggest it doesn’t mean you have to do it.

Ask yourself: What is the goal? If the goal is to get information to tell the story (as it should), then act accordingly.   If you’re doing a fishing expedition, (casting a wide net to see what’s there), then that’s not the best use of your time or resources.

This entry was posted in Training by Icess Fernandez Rojas. Bookmark the permalink.

About Icess Fernandez Rojas

Icess is a writer, professor, and blogger. She is a graduate of Goddard College's MFA program. Her work has been published in Rabble Lit, Minerva Rising Literary Journal, and the Feminine Collective's anthology Notes from Humanity. Her nonfiction has appeared in Dear Hope, NBCNews.com, HuffPost and the Guardian. She is a recipient of the Owl of Minerva Award, a VONA/Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation alum, and is also a Kimbilio Fellow. She's currently working on her first novel.

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