Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Iowa starts charging fees for reviewing requests for records if lawyers' review takes more than 3 hours

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is generally not an advocacy organization, but we do advocate for the coverage of issues -- and the tools that journalists need to perform that public service. That's why we're against the idea of letting government agencies charge the public and the press for time that their lawyers spend reviewing requests for public records.

The latest proponent of this bad idea is Democratic Gov. Chet Culver of Iowa, whose office started charging such fees after The Des Moines Register made "two unusually large and unconnected requests for public e-mails" in March, Lee Rood of the Register reported last week. "The requests also came after the governor’s office had mulled for more than a year about rare requests for large numbers of public information that take a lot of agencies’ time to compile," Rood writes, quoting Culver General Counsel James Larew as saying that charging fees to retrieve public documents is supported by case law and has prompted requesters to scale back their requests, and the new fees were intended to “discipline” requesters, not restrain them. "The charges can be levied when a request for records is estimated to take more than three hour of lawyers’ time, Larew said."

"The advice runs contrary to past practices of numerous city and state agencies, which sometimes charge citizens or media to retrieve and copy records and e-mails but have not harged for having lawyers review records that are presumed public under law," Rood reports. "At stake is whether the government or its citizens should bear the cost of determining whether a record should be kept confidential. Open records experts say the new charges — which have been estimated at $25 and $35 an hour — are largely untested in Iowa courts and uncommon in other states across the country." Rood's story is reprinted in the latest issue of the Iowa Newspaper Association Bulletin.

Rood reported in a follow-up story that Iowa's Senate majority leader said he didn't like the idea of making access to public records more expensive, and said the legislature would review the policy. But Culver defended the idea at a press conference, and bad ideas like this have a way of spreading, and they are more likely to affect rural news outlets, which often lack the newsroom budgets to pay fees for government lawyers. Our advice: If you see this happening in your state, work with other journalists and news-media organizations to nip it in the bud. But it's also a good idea to avoid overly broad records requests, and to be willing to negotiate with agencies about the extent of requests and the cost of fulfilling them.

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