Legal News: City of Ferguson Demands High ORR Fees

{Image by USA Today}

By Jack Gillum, Associated Press, September 29, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — Officials in Ferguson, Missouri, are charging nearly 10 times the cost of some of their own employees’ salaries before they will agree to turn over files under public records laws about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Missouri’s attorney general on Monday, after the AP first disclosed the practice, contacted Ferguson’s city attorney to ask for more information regarding fees related to document requests, the attorney general’s spokeswoman said.

The move to charge high fees discourages journalists and civil rights groups from investigating the shooting and its aftermath. And it follows dozens of records requests to Ferguson under the state’s Sunshine Law, which can offer an unvarnished look into government activity.

The city has demanded high fees to produce copies of records that, under Missouri law, it could give away free if it determined the material was in the public’s interest to see. Instead, in some cases, the city has demanded high fees with little explanation or cost breakdown.

In one case, it billed The Associated Press $135 an hour — for nearly a day’s work — merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting. That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk’s office, and it didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them. The AP has not paid for the search because it has yet to negotiate the cost.

Price-gouging for government files is one way that local, state and federal agencies have responded to requests for potentially embarrassing information they may not want released. Open records laws are designed to give the public access to government records at little or no cost, and have historically exposed waste, wrongdoing and corruption.

Since Brown’s death and ensuing protests, news organizations, nonprofit groups and everyday citizens have submitted records requests to Ferguson officials, asking for police reports, records about Brown and the personnel files of Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown Aug. 9.

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