In the past year or so, a number of state and local agencies in Colorado have begun charging members of the media higher fees for completing public-records requests. Take the Denver Police Department, which used to make copies of daily reports and put them in a press room where journalists could peruse them without charge and only ask for those that struck them as newsworthy. Last year, however, the DPD dropped this policy in favor of e-mails that listed incidents sans enough detail to determine their news value -- and to find out more about specific reports cost $10 a pop. May not seem like a big deal, but it severely hurt organizations like the Denver Daily News, which are as strapped for cash as government bodies these days. As a result, the public is getting less information than it did previously.
Which brings us to the case of Todd Shepherd, an investigative reporter for the conservative Independence Institute think tank, who recently asked for information from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, a voluntary association representing Eagle, Summit, Jackson, Grand and Pitkin counties, as well as numerous municipalities therein. While Northwest neither ignored nor turned down this request, the price tag placed upon it was so hefty that Shepherd not only balked, but he decided to make it public. "We feel the cost they asked was too high, especially given the fact that the information we wanted should be open," Shepherd says.
Back in April, Shepherd "read an article by the Associated Press that quoted a national watchdog-journalism group as saying they were concerned the weatherization program" -- part of the massive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- "had all kinds of possibilities for fraud and waste.
"So I looked at the Governor's press release site for their announcement, because the money that comes in for weatherization goes to the Governor's Energy Office," he continues. "From there, the GEO splits it up to six different agencies, including the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments." He then sent open-records requests to each of these agencies asking for documentation about how each had spent the funds distributed by the GEO to date.
Shepherd has no complaints about most of the agencies. For instance, the Northeastern Colorado Association of Local Governments in Fort Morgan sent him packets of information for each employee hired with the cash. In contrast, Northwest shipped blank bid packets, and when he e-mailed about seeing the winning and losing bids, he was told this data could only be compiled at a cost of $55 an hour -- and personnel anticipated that it would take four-to-eight hours of work to do it.
At first, he didn't smack the panic button. "It's always been my experience that the price of open records is negotiable," he says, adding, "I'm typically charged $12 to $20 an hour for open-records requests -- and usually the first half-hour or hour is free before the clock starts running." So he suggested via e-mail that they try to compromise -- but he didn't receive a reply until he followed up with a note revealing that he planned to discuss the situation on KHOW radio (which he did yesterday). Instead of caving, however, the Northwest respondent simply explained that the cost was based on contract charges and couldn't be reduced. Along the way, Shepherd contacted GEO press liaison Todd Hartman asking if that agency could help both parties find a middle ground. Nope: Hartman said the matter was between Shepherd and Northwest.
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Despite his frustrations, Shepherd says he has no objection in principle to document charges. "At the Independence Institute, we don't believe in free lunches," he says, noting that he's probably shelled out around $500 for such material in the past month or two. But neither does he feel agencies should price every page like a gourmet meal -- and in his opinion, that's what Northwest did. Moreover, he goes on, these fees "are part of a broader picture."
Below, check on the e-mail string supplied by Shepherd:
From: Todd Shepherd To: Steve Getz Sent: Thursday, July 23, 2009 11:53 AM Subject: CORA request
Attached is a CORA request filed on behalf of the Independence Institute.
Please don't hesitate to call me if I can add any clarification or assist in the fulfillment of this CORA in any way.
Mike Kurth wrote:
In response to your request for information.
To complete this request and compile the information requested, we would charge our normally hourly rate or $55.00 per hour. The estimated time would range between 4-8 hours. The charge for copies would be .07 per page. Please let us know if you have further questions.
Michael J Kurth Fiscal Officer Northwest Colorado Council of Governments
From: Todd Shepherd Sent: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 3:03 PM To: Mike Kurth Cc: Gary Severson; Steve Getz; Todd Hartman Subject: Taking my case to the radio
I wrote to your office (both to Mr. Severson and to Mr. Getz) on August 12 asking if we could somehow negotiate these hourly fees. Unfortunately, almost four full days of business have gone by, and I have had no reply.
For your interest then, I will be on 630 KHOW at 3:50 this afternoon on the "Caplis and Silverman Show" to discuss what I feel are punitive fees, especially as they are documents related to President Obama's stimulus bill/spending.
Gary Severson wrote:
Dear Mr. Shepherd,
Northwest Colorado Council of Governments is a small voluntary association of local governments. We are fully prepared to respond to your request for information regarding the use of ARRA funds, but we must be able to collect sufficient funds in order to cover our costs for your request. Because NWCCOG is a small association with a small staff, we contract our financial services. Our contract cost for those services is $55.00 per hour and our copier usage cost is $.07 per page. We are quoting you the exact amounts of what it costs us. We will fulfill your request for the information you desire as soon as we have assurances that our costs will be covered.
Gary J. Severson Executive Director Northwest Colorado Council of Governments
Subject: Re: Taking my case to the radio Date: Tue, 18 Aug 2009 19:33:57 -0600 From: Todd Shepherd
To: email@example.com CC: 'Mike Kurth,' 'Steve Getz,' 'Todd Hartman'
Mr Severson et al:
I appreciate the fact the NWCCOG is voluntary, and that you contract out your financial services for a rate of $55/hr. If that is the case, however, then perhaps the GEO should look at some other method or government to distribute the weatherization funds provided by ARRA. While it's not your fault that your financial services are contracted for $55/hr, neither is it mine. Also, I'm now curious, did the NWCCOG have to contract out their services to bid out the weatherization money? Did the financial services contractor make $55-hr while doing so?
Suppose it take 8 hours to compile the documents. At that point, I would pay $400 to see how $400-K of the ARRA was spent. If the same percentage (.0009%) were applied to the entire $787 billion of the ARRA act, then it would cost approximately $700 million dollars for the American people to see where/how their money was spent. Although I'm obviously in no position to speak for the President, I hardly think this is what he had in mind when he said his administration would be transparent.
Again, Mr. Hartman, I implore YOU to enable YOUR office to help ameliorate these costs. In two years time, the GEO has spent $44-Thousand dollars on hotel rooms. Can't you find $200 to split these costs with me?
My final point... how much will I again have to pay when the NWCCOG receives more money for more weatherization?
Regards to all,