Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Agencies charge public to provide information

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Citing drained resources for in-depth information requests, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office is now charging media outlets and others for requested records.

Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, said the office has received ‘‘multiple” in-depth inquiries for information under the state’s Public Information Act in recent weeks.

Bailey said most requests the office receives can be fulfilled in two hours or less, but the recent requests have caused ‘‘a drain on our resources and records [employees].” State law does not allow agencies to charge fees for requests that take two hours or less to fulfill.

Bailey would not name who made the requests, but said they were from media outlets and community-based groups.

Bailey said the agency has a policy that waives fees for the first two hours of work, but charges the hourly rate of the employee who performs the work thereafter. A 25-cent copying fee is also levied.

‘‘We’ve had the policy in place and have been able to meet the requests within two hours ... but [in the last month], we’ve received several requests that have gone beyond that, so we are following our policy,” Bailey said.

She said three recent requests meet the fee requirement, including a recent request from The Gazette.

On Jan. 24, The Gazette published results from a public information request to the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office regarding the use of a Taser stun gun by Cpl. Rudy Torres. Torres deployed his Taser twice in an effort to subdue 20-year-old Jarrel Gray of Frederick. Gray died nearly two hours after receiving a pair of shocks from the device.

The Sheriff’s Office did not charge a fee for The Gazette’s initial request, made on Dec. 6, 2007, and fulfilled on Jan. 2, 2008. Bailey said while it was ‘‘not the norm” for the office to fulfill at no cost, it was done at no charge anyway.

On Jan. 24, The Gazette made a follow-up request under the state law requesting additional information on Taser use. One week after the request, the sheriff’s office said a $175 fee would apply for six hours of research needed to fulfill the request.

The Gazette asked Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) to waive the fee, citing the law’s stipulation that the information is ‘‘in the public interest.”

Jenkins said Wednesday he feels the fee is ‘‘reasonable” given the time and effort to pull records by his employees.

‘‘I recall we gave certain statistics [on Taser use at a December press conference] within our department,” he said. ‘‘I feel that was within the public’s interest, and we weren’t hiding anything.”

The Gazette’s request, Jenkins said, required more staff time.

‘‘I feel we are being transparent ... but how far do you go until it becomes a burden on our staff?” he said. ‘‘Everything is not at our fingertips, and it takes time and effort to put things together. We keep the fee as reasonable as we can.”

Jenkins said his office has received ‘‘a number” of public information requests regarding Taser use by his department.

Jack Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said newspapers ‘‘are not in a position to never pay a fee and have [agencies] be at our beck and call,” but justifiable reasons exist for fee waivers.

‘‘I do think there is a good case to be made for such waivers when you ask for something of high public concern,” he said. ‘‘...This is what a newspaper does, letting the public know how their government is working.”

City, county governments use similar policy

Both the City of Frederick and Frederick County government agencies also levy a fee after the two-hour research window, based on the hourly wage of the person fulfilling the request.

That fee can range from $20 to $68 per hour, according to city attorney Saundra Nickols.

Mayor W. Jeff Holtzinger (R) said the city does its best to make public records available for viewing at City Hall at no cost. ‘‘It should be public information,” he said. ‘‘None of this [information] belongs to us ... it belongs to [taxpayers].”

Holtzinger did, however, note that some requests can ‘‘burden” his staff due to the amount of research needed to fulfill them, and require a fee. ‘‘We don’t charge more than what it cost for us to put it out,” he said.

Linda Thall, senior assistant county attorney, said her office is seeing more requests surpassing the two-hour window.

‘‘We are starting to see a lot more ... and a lot more complicated [requests],” she said. ‘‘A majority are from lawyers who want information for their client ... a lot of which involve land cases.”

Maryland Public Information Act

The state’s Public Information Act gives the public the right to access government records ‘‘without unnecessary cost and delay.” According to the text of the 1970 law, it also:

Restricts certain documents to respect privacy and confidentiality, especially personnel records and adoption records.

Cites ‘‘reasonable fees” as ‘‘bearing a reasonable relationship to the recovery of actual costs incurred by a governmental unit.”

For more information: www.oag.state.md.us⁄opengov⁄pia.htm.