Multiple news media organizations have filed formal complaints with the Missouri Attorney General over the high fees charged by the city of Ferguson in response to public records requests. The complaints come after reports of journalists being asked to pay up to $2,000 in advance to search through and copy emails and text messages. Thus far, complaints have been filed by the Associated Press, CNN, St. Louis Public Radio, and the Radio Television Digital News Association.
In response to a Sunshine Law request, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has received email between Ferguson City officials and Acumen Consulting, a St. Louis-based data firm that has been hired by the city to search its records. According to the email messages, one search by Acumen Consulting for seven keywords over 14 email accounts took them five hours. At Acumen’s $135/hour billing rate, the search would have cost $675, plus a base fee of $500, for a total of $1,375. Acumen estimated that searching an additional 49 mailboxes for the same seven keywords would take “approximately 9 more hours.” That would have cost another $1,215.
In a previously reported email to a St. Louis Public Radio reporter, the Ferguson city clerk stated that “there is a tremendous amount of work involved with researching whether records exist which are responsive to your [Sunshine Law] request….”
Missouri’s Sunshine Law states that fees for providing access to electronic records “shall not exceed the average hourly rate of pay for staff of the public governmental body….” According to the Associated Press, an entry-level wage in the Ferguson city clerk’s office is $13.90. The law also specifically allows governmental entities to waive all fees if requests are in the public interest.
The complaint filed by RTDNA expressed concern that the high fees charged by Ferguson “clearly appear to be an effort by city officials to discourage or even eliminate efforts by the media to continue its investigation into this incident.” Similarly, CNN stated that the fees represented “a deliberate attempt to delay this important information from reaching the public.”
The Reporters Committee, which requested a fee waiver for its Sunshine Law request, was not charged for the records it received from the Ferguson city clerk.
The Reporters Committee has taken several steps to ensure freedom of the press is maintained in Ferguson, including urging the Justice Department to investigate press issues, condemning the arrests of journalists, and providing resources for those covering the events.
The Reporters Committee is also a co-plaintiff with Chris McDaniel of St. Louis Public Radio and the ACLU in an unrelated lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections to obtain information on the companies that produce Missouri’s execution drugs.