- - Thursday, October 9, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When Sandy Berger, the national security adviser to Bill Clinton, realized the National Archives had documents that he didn’t want the public to see, he stuffed them down his pants and walked out of the building. Today’s bureaucrats don’t need to go to such extremes to keep embarrassing facts out of the public eye. All they have to do is raise prices.

Journalists seeking records from Ferguson, Mo., were told they needed to come up with more than $2,000 to see files related to the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Under Missouri law, the town is obligated to make such information available at no charge when doing so is in the public’s interest. The problem is, the laws allow that judgment call to be based on the bureaucrat’s interest.

Thus, town officials hired a consulting firm at a cost of $135 an hour to retrieve relevant emails in response to a request from The Associated Press. It was basically a cut-and-paste job that a city bureaucrat could have readily handled, but the pricy firm billed 16 hours of labor.

EPB, the taxpayer-owned electric utility in Chattanooga, Tenn., shocked a college student by telling him the cost of just looking at basic records would be $1,767. Tennessee’s Office of Open Records Counsel was on the student’s side, telling utility officials they “should not have assessed (the) fees,” but EPB did anyway. An outside group picked up the tab so that the student could go to the office to see the documents. He was then told that he would have to pay an additional $2,070 to look at them a second time. The records provided evidence that the electric company attempted to bully local media not to report on issues that reflected negatively on the utility.

Similar incidents play out all across the nation. A Kansas University student was told that she would have to pony up $1,800 to view emails between the university’s business school and several donors. In Oregon, a man hoping to investigate the misuse of “federal grant money and county resources” to alter the outcome of an initiative to legalize marijuana was charged $6,534 by Crook County, aptly named for the way it handles simple document requests.

What constitutes an open record is clearly and, thankfully, broadly defined in most places in the United States, but more needs to be done to keep state and local bureaucrats from abusing the process to conceal records that they don’t want the world to see. Some states force agencies found in violation of transparency laws to pay for attorneys’ fees and court costs of the person being charged for the documents.

This is a nice start, but it assumes that a concerned citizen has the money, time and patience to take the government to court. If a judge determines that an agency is in violation of public-records laws, taxpayers are the ones footing the bill.

A better way to give the laws real teeth would be to force the official caught using gimmicks to prevent transparency to pay all the costs of his misconduct out of his own pocket. That would send a clear message that the government is serious about transparency.

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