FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Ferguson officials were inundated with thousands of open-records requests from media outlets and the public following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer.
In response, the St. Louis suburb sought payments of thousands of dollars before even beginning to fulfill some of those requests, and Ferguson’s city attorney has defended that decision.
Some media outlets complained to the Missouri attorney general that Ferguson was violating the state’s Sunshine Law, which is intended to ensure public access to records at a reasonable cost.
The situation highlights the challenges local governments can face when they suddenly become the focus of intense public interest.
“I’m sure being in this kind of a spotlight can seem overwhelming to them,” said Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in Sunshine Law issues. But she added: “The public has a right to ask questions about how its government works, and it’s in Ferguson’s best interest to be as transparent as it can.”
Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot by Darren Wilson, who is white, during an Aug. 9 confrontation. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department both declined to charge Wilson, though a separate federal report found evidence of racial profiling and other problems in Ferguson’s police department and court system.
The shooting spurred an influx of open-record requests seeking information on Brown and Wilson. Concerns about how the mostly white police force interacted with a town where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black sparked other requests. Still more concerned the often tense relationship between protesters and police.
The requests sought crime investigation reports, emails and other internal documents. They came from media, bloggers, civil rights groups, legal defense organizations and individuals.
Ferguson City Attorney Stephanie Karr didn’t have an exact count, but noted that by October, she had collected about 3,000 pages of open-records requests. For a small town unaccustomed to such volume — Karr said Ferguson rarely received more than a couple of requests a month before the shooting — it was overwhelming.
“I went for about seven weeks without any time off,” said Karr, adding that her overtime was unpaid. “Sometimes I would work from morning until midnight. I worked Saturdays and Sundays. I was working on Ferguson all the time, and a big chunk of that was Sunshine Law requests.”
Karr and the city clerk were responsible for answering the requests, with some help from a law assistant and an intern.
In some cases, the city sought down payments of $2,000 from media organizations before it would begin processing requests. Karr said those were rare cases in which the city would have to hire an information technology consulting firm to retrieve emails at a cost of $135 an hour and a $500 base fee. She said one request would have required the retrieval of 50,000 emails.
“There is no reason for the taxpayers of the city to bear this financial burden,” Karr said in an email.
The Associated Press, CNN, St. Louis Public Radio and the Radio Television Digital News Association all filed complaints with the office of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, asserting that the fees violated the state Sunshine Law. Although Missouri law limits copying charges to the average hourly pay of clerical staff, public entities can charge their “actual cost” for research time and any extraordinary computer programming that’s necessary.
Koster’s office hasn’t determined whether Ferguson’s charges are reasonable, but “the fact is the law allows you to charge actual costs, and sometimes those costs are more than you might expect,” said Patricia Churchill, chief counsel in the office’s governmental affairs division.
Karr defended the city’s Sunshine Law efforts, noting that it waived copying fees for tens of thousands of records in the first few weeks after the shooting.
At some point, Karr started noticing similar wording in many of the requests and discovered an Aug. 26 tweet calling for volunteers to flood Ferguson with open-record requests. She responded to all of those requests.
“They wanted to cause trouble, interrupt our operation from really important functions,” she said. “They were turning this around and completely perverting the entire purpose of the Sunshine Law.”
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