By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS – A sampling of public document requests from Missouri Watchdog shows general compliance with the state’s open records law, but a Sunshine Law advocate and attorney said one government tried to charge her client more than $10,000 for some electronic records.
Missouri Watchdog contacted about a dozen municipalities of various sizes across the Show-Me State this week to ask how much it would cost to obtain printed copies of recent city council or alderman meeting minutes.
This is the annual Sunshine Week, a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government.
State law allows a government body to charge up to 10 cents per page for paper copies, the average hourly rate of pay for the clerical staff that duplicates the documents and the actual cost of the research time for fulfilling the request. The law requires government bodies to use the lowest salaried employee capable of complying.
From Campbell to Ozark to Warsaw, Watchdog was told to submit the request in writing and that we would be charged 10 cents per page, plus the hourly wage of the employee doing the research and copying. The expectation generally would be that the work would take two or three hours.
A clerk in Lake St. Louis said the cost would “depend on the salary of the person who is doing the research,” which is not exactly in full compliance with the law.
Iberia said there would be no extra charge on top of the 10 cents per copy.
It should be noted that 10 cents is the maximum that government bodies can charge for a copy. They can charge less.
This isn’t FedEx copying services here, but Missouri’s open records law – and many other state’s laws – allow governments to operate like private enterprise.
“There has been a long held belief that they should make a profit from these copies,” said Jean Maneke, a Kansas City lawyer who collaborates with the Missouri Press Association on open-records issues.
She’s working with a private business in Missouri that’s trying to get electronically the land records for each county, with quotes from $50 to more than $10,000 for those records.
She wouldn’t divulge the name of a county asking $10,000 because that case is still under litigation.
Maneke said most counties could probably just make a copy of those records on a CD.
“It’s beyond understanding that they should charge $10,000 for something they could get in just a few minutes,” she said. “Public bodies are having trouble with what it should cost us for electronic records.”
Maneke said last month she settled another case with Daviess County, which wanted $1 per record for each parcel of land. Total cost: $10,651.
She didn’t reveal how much her client ultimately paid for the records.
“The county did realize it was inaccurate in what it thought its costs would be,” Maneke said.
Attorney General Chris Koster’s office sent out a news release this week listing the top five questions among the 1,300 Sunshine Law inquiries his office received in 2012. How much government bodies can charge for records requests was at the top of the list.
“It’s usually more questions rather than complaints that they’ve overcharging,” AG spokeswoman Nanci Gonder told Watchdog.
But overcharging does occur in some locales. State Auditor Thomas Schweich’s summary of Sunshine Law violations last spring included some instances of sky-high costs, such as a research rate greater than $20 an hour in Riverview.
Maneke said the greater compliance problem continues to be government bodies going into closed session for reasons other than the narrow exceptions granted under state law.
That was number two on the AG list.
“There’s lot of those things that go on day in or day out,” Maneke said. “Unless they’ve got a good exception to rely on they can’t do that.”
A bill from Sen. Kurt Schaeffer, R-Columbia, that’s under consideration in the Missouri General Assembly would strengthen parts of the Sunshine Law, including requiring summaries of closed-door discussion in meeting minutes.