Transparency

Pricing the Public Out of Public Records: $100 for a School-Board Meeting Record?

Ain't no sunshine in West Lafayette

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West Lafayette Junior/Senior High School/Facebook

This week has been what the American Society of News Editors call "Sunshine Week," an initiative intended to educate about the importance of government transparency and open records. Before Sunshine Week passes us by, I wanted to bring you this story from West Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue University and a bafflingly secretive city* government, as resident Zach Baiel recently found out.

In January, Baiel asked for a recording of a December West Lafayette school-board meeting. A longtime Indiana resident and pointed rabble-rouser, Baiel—also a friend (and collaborator on many a wine-fueled theater project) when I lived in Indy—takes local politics, city government, and his civic duty quite seriously. Obviously, people find this suspicious. From the Lafayette Journal & Courier

(Baiel) makes public records requests almost weekly at various Greater Lafayette government outlets, sometimes reaching out across the state if he hears about something interesting. And he says he's used to the first question out of many gatekeepers' mouths: Why do you need it?

That question really isn't an issue when it comes to public records. But Baiel said he'll answer: "I'd rather get to the source." And in the case of the West Side school board recording, he said he wanted an accurate record of questions he asked and responses he received during public comment time that night.

West Lafyette schools told Baiel that was no problem—he would just need to fork over around $75 to $100 for it. 

When he asked why it was so expensive, the district calculated it would take three to four hours, at $27 an hour, to extract, review and redact the audio. Baiel said that at that price, he'd pass. Baiel offered to come in and listen to the audio, instead. The district said it still would have to review and redact it, first.

Baiel asked a natural question: What needed to be redacted from what was already said out loud at a public meeting? Killion said he wanted to protect the district against anything that might violate the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student academic records.

Undeterred, Baiel filed a formal complaint with the state Office of the Public Records Counselor. The West Lafayette School Corporation (WLSC) defended its position, calling Baiel's requests "unfair and burdensome" and contending that Baiel "attended the December meeting and should be aware of the matters discussed."

Officials also complained that the district incurred $5,500 in "attorney's fees to determine what information can be released under Indiana law." 

It would seem it's not really citizens' fault if government officials aren't already aware of their record-keeping duties under the law. And it doesn't matter if Baiel was at the meeting and "should be aware" of matters discussed there. Under state statute, "a governing body does not have to record its meetings," as Public Access Counselor Luke Britt noted. "However, if a governing body does record a meeting, the recording becomes public record subject to inspection and copying."

"I am familiar with recording technology used by public agencies statewide and have not encountered a system which incurs $75-$100 to generate a copy," Britt wrote in a response to Baiel, adding that he has "difficulty accepting" that the school could not produce the records more cost-effectively. "By the tone of WLSC's response and the amount charged, one can reasonably infer the fee set to copy a recording of an open board meeting was meant to frustrate access based upon your history as a repeat requester." 

Britt ruled that the recording of the open meeting should be provided to Baiel without redactions. Last week, the school district responded by offering to make the recording available to Baiel for $43. "I guess they have it in their head that knocking $30 off makes it reasonable," Baiel told the Journal & Courier. "Absurd. Why make this so hard? It shouldn't be. You have to ask: Why do they seem set on making it that way?"

As for the larger matter of how to make meeting audio available to the public at a reasonable price, the district also has a solution: It will now stop recording school-board meetings entirely.

* Correction: the city of West Lafayette isn't directly responsible for running the West Lafayette public schools; rather, they're run by an independent school board that's elected directly by the people of the city. 

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  1. “Redact the audio”? It was a public meeting. Nothing in it is protected from disclosure. God do these assholes have nerve.

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  2. THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS!

  3. … it would take three to four hours, at $27 an hour…

    There is no fucking way a government employee can bill out at just $27/hour.

    1. I see nothing indicating one employee. I just assumed it was one to do the work, one to manage, and one to countersign.

  4. Small town bureaucrats acting like petty tyants? I’m shocked!

  5. Ah, the minds in that jurisdiction. From the comments:

    Amy Satura ? Top Commenter ? Purdue University
    Why can’t there be more normal citizens like you and me Adam Wilson. Do you or I need to attend public meetings? No! We trust our elected officials.

    Adam Wilson ? Top Commenter
    The guy is obviously crazy, but if the school district is going to the trouble of recording meetings, why not post the audio file online for download so anyone can hear it?

    Mel Jones ? Top Commenter
    Dr. Killion is a credit to our community. I feel very sorry for him that he has to put up with a nut case like Baiel, who apparently looks for any excuse to waste taxpayer money pointlessly harassing our public officials.

    These spineless ingrates haven’t a single fucking clue on how to be an actual citizen in a free country where public officials are to be held to the highest standards of transparency no matter how much this reality ‘bothers’ them. If the needs of the open society ‘bother’ you, public official, then get a goddamn job as a janitor.

    1. Oh FFS. “Wasting taxpayer money” by asking to know what government officials are actually doing and saying….

      1. Open societies aren’t built on blind faith in elected officials. Evidently some of these people missed the memo when they signed up for the job.

    2. Ah, the minds in that jurisdiction.

      Adam Wilson actually seems kinda cogent.

      1. Well, sure, if you take out the ‘crazy’ part. Evidently, it’s just crazy to go all open-society on your public officials.

        1. As someone who spent some time in the W. Lafayette Public Library, I’ve probably crossed paths with Mr. Baiel.

          I can certainly see how someone might use the word to describe him dismissively and/or towards the ‘zealous’ end of the motivational spectrum. When half the city is auto-assembly-line-workers and farmers and the other half is a cosmopolitan collection students, professionals, and academics, everyone always thinks everyone else is crazy.

          I would say that I am a little puzzled at Dr. Killion’s stubbornness and/or willingness to throw away $5500 in legal fees after

          1. I would say that I am a little puzzled at Dr. Killion’s stubbornness and/or willingness to throw away $5500 less than $100 in duplication/redaction fees. All the public officials I interacted with (esp. at the lower levels) were more than willing to let someone else do the legwork, esp. if they could work something out of the deal that didn’t seem inappropriate/unethical (as it seems Baiel has done more than once in the past).

            They usually tried to avoid, at least superficially, the appearance of impropriety because, as Busab describes below, public meetings with all the competence and secrecy of speaking the question “Where did the money go?” are not exceedingly uncommon.

          2. mad.casual posting a link of… a supposedly mad man dressed supremely casual. The irony here officially broke my face for the day. Lovya, man… just couldn’t resist pointing this out.

    3. The recording probably includes the trusted officials laughing their ass off at the stupid rubes they’re lording over. They would need to redact their mocking contempt for the people who pay their salaries first.

      1. Or not. The last school board meeting I attended in Indiana, before I wisely pulled all my kids and started homeschooling, was mostly concerned what the hell had happened to a large sum of money mysteriously missing from the school’s budget.

        1. Or it could be both.

    4. Do you or I need to attend public meetings? No! We trust our elected officials.

      People like this are all the explanation one needs for why Obama thinks mandatory voting is a good idea.

  6. “Dr. Killion”. I am going to take a stab here and guess that the good doctor’s degree is not in mechanical engineering, Chinese history, western medicine, biblical studies, or witchcraft. I suspect it’s in EDUCATION.

    1. It’s Hoosiertown. Dr Killian may not actually have a doctorate in anything. The guy who signed my HS diploma disappeared a couple of years after I graduated with $80,000 of school funds and a rather tardy background check of his credentials showed that he had not graduated any college any where let alone attaining a PhD.

      1. You dodged that bullet.

        1. How so? As far as any students or teachers for that matter could tell, the dude (official title “Superintendent of Schools) collected a 6 figure salary to come into his office once a year and sign diplomas. School board hired him, but no one could ever figure out why—it’s probably in the meeting records that they don’t release– I personally favor the “idiot brother-in-law” of some state muckety muck theory. This is VERY common in Indiana bureaucracies.

        2. I attended a Roman Catholic high school near to Upper Marion high school, at near the same time, where some teachers dissolved their sexual subjects in chemistry lab acid.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E…..e_Darkness

          I was only accosted once by a Christian Brother with his advances.

  7. How to you get to Purdue from IU?

    You go north until you smell it and west until you step in it.

    1. Your degree must be from IU.

      Indiana University is sound and east of Purdue.

      1. Uh which IU? There’s eight campuses you know.

        1. It refers to the Bloomington campus? That is south and east, where the basketball and football programs are broadcast from.

      2. It is not, I just heard the joke once and liked it.

        Indiana University is sound and east of Purdue.

        Right thus to get from IU to Purdue you must go north and then west.

        1. Go easy on MC, he went to Purdue.

        2. Sry, knee jerk semi-joking reaction that doesn’t convert well to internet text speak.

          It’s delivered with the polite implication and slight southern drawl that strongly suggests that the education or pre-med student who came to campus from IU either re-orient him/herself or find his/her way home.

          “You ain’t from around these parts are you?”

        3. There’s also 6 Purdue campuses (the big kahuna is in West Lafayette). So technically you could go just about any direction to get from one to the other.

    2. Oh and gist a general comment about Indiana’s olfactory sensations…the south of the state smells of “nature”, and the north of the state smells of Chicago. Indianapolis itself smells like burnt popcorn.

      1. Actually, he’s not joking about smelling W. Lafayette.

        Nothing beats explaining to someone that the corn syrup sweetener used to make whatever sweets they’re munching on is the product of the ‘wet ass’ smell coming out of Staley’s.

        1. Anything south of Knox counts as North Kentucky. And “nature” is a euphemism we use for shit/manure/rotting vegetation/ industrial agricultural processes. My SIL went to Purdue I’m familiar with the stench—and with the bizarre statue of Neil Armstrong sitting in front of the building that looks like it escaped from a Transformers movie. My SIL convinced me not to take a selfie sitting in his lap.

          1. I was more perturbed by “The Workers’ Pete” statue that they put up in front of Ross-Ade.

            1. I’ve not seen it. I’ve thus far managed to keep as far away from the stadium as humanly possible.

    3. And one last comment to thoroughly beat this horse to a pulp. IUPUI–that’s short for Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis–wherein they share a campus.

      1. Oowie Pooie.

        1. I see you’ve been there. lol

          1. Grew up in New Castle, IN.

  8. My friend and I were kicked out of band camp at Purdue for having alcohol in the dorms. We slept in my car for the remaining two days and watched the Sunday concert on the law, drinking beers. The band sounded just swell, except there were no tubas. Way to suck West Lafayette.

    1. So this one time, at band camp…

      1. You stole the tubas?

        1. Didn’t steal ’em. We brought our own. My friend and I were the tuba section. They were packed safely away in my Dodge.

    2. except there were no tubas

      How did we have No Tubas?

      1. Technically, that is a Sousaphone, not a tuba.

        1. Hey, nerd, I didn’t give him the title of ‘Tuba Man’, the people of Indiana did (OK, maybe Farm Bureau Insurance did).

  9. Just out of curiosity, I decided to check on what our local school board does. They have a youtube channel, so not only are the meetings webcasted live, but the videos are posted on youtube afterward. One would think that the hometown of Purdue could manage something similar. If they wanted to.

    1. They don’t want to. No public official wants to broadcast their idiocy to the general public.

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