Civil Liberties

City of Ferguson Charges Vice More Than $1,200 for Open Records Request, Turns Over Just Seven Emails

Stonewalling with high fees?


Vice reports:

Blow, man, blow!
Jesse Walker

In the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, police officers in Ferguson, Missouri feared that people in the community were "gunning" for them, and officers were having a "rough" time dealing with the news media, according to an email written by Assistant Police Chief Al Eickhoff.

Eickhoff's email was one of only seven internal emails the City of Ferguson turned over to VICE News in response to an open-records request filed in late September for records pertaining to Brown's death and the protests that immediately followed. For those seven emails, the City of Ferguson charged VICE News a fee of more than $1,200.

The city clerk told Vice that there were so few messages because a server outage had interrupted the local government's email service.

Vice isn't the only organization to face remarkably high fees for Ferguson record requests. A little over a month ago, the Associated Press described several similar cases:

Nixonstalgia! Catch it!
Garry Trudeau

"The first line of defense is to make the requester go away," said Rick Blum, who coordinates the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that advocates for open government. He said charging hefty fees "to simply cut and paste is a popular tactic."

The Washington Post was told it would need to pay $200 at minimum for its requests, including city officials' emails since Aug. 9 discussing Brown's shooting, citizen complaints against Ferguson officers and Wilson's personnel file. The website Buzzfeed requested in part emails and memos among city officials about Ferguson's traffic-citation policies and changes to local elections, but was told it would cost unspecified thousands of dollars to fulfill.

Inquiries about Ferguson's public records requests were referred to the city's attorney, Stephanie Karr, who declined to respond to repeated interview requests from the AP since earlier this month. Through a spokesman late Monday, Karr said Missouri law can require fees but she didn't address why charges specific to the AP's request were nearly tenfold the lowest salary in the city clerk's office. Karr said searching emails for key words constitutes "extra computer programming" that can bring added costs.

The search requested by Vice took a city contractor five hours to complete. That "extra computer programming" must be pretty pricey.