It is legal for government employees fulfilling Sunshine Law requests to reasonably charge for research time, copying costs, and postage. When Cynthia and I file requests, we state the maximum a clerk or school district can charge without letting us know before beginning the work.
If they reasonably charge below our maximum and provide the information, we have to pay.
At first, we began with a $100 maximum. But when Cynthia hit $717.38 in total charges, with more than 25 county clerks left to contact, we panicked. She had a $1,000 budget, and the Show-Me Institute is a non-profit organization. I didn’t have an explicit budget, because school districts big and small rarely charge to fill Sunshine Law requests — but I wasn’t eager to run up a large bill either.
So we lowered the maximum. Her new maximum was $50, stated as: “If you determine not to waive these fees, please notify me of any cost that exceeds $50 before fulfilling this request.”
I lowered my maximum to $30. All other wording in our requests stayed the same.
Yesterday afternoon, it dawned on me that we had accidentally tested the integrity of county clerks and superintendents. If they were less than honest, they would charge just below the maximum we stated, to collect the most cash without scrutiny.
It would be easy to see dishonesty. Charges in response to the requests with a $100 maximum would cluster just below that amount, and after the maximum was lowered, the cluster would move — to hover just below $50.
We tested that this morning. We graphed the charges clerks sent Cynthia before and after she changed her maximum. We also averaged those charges separately, leaving out any that were excessively high. We assumed that clerks who charged well above the maximum listed would have done so regardless. Specifically, three clerks were left out of the $50 group: two who charged more than $200, and one who requested a $100 deposit to begin the work.
Wonder of wonders, despite other recent news* about Missouri public officials’ finance antics, we didn’t see a pattern of charging to get the most cash from the Show-Me Institute. For both groups of county clerks, the average charge was between $30 and $40. There also was no apparent clustering just below either maximum.
As far as my requests are concerned, it looks like small school districts are just as compliant as large ones. If anything, they are more so. Superintendents at smaller districts tend to respond to my email requests quickly and personally, many times writing a letter to explain their duties or benefits. Out of 140 superintendent contracts received, only 10 school districts have asked for payment. That’s just too small of a group to even begin looking for a pattern, especially because most districts that did charge only charged for copy costs.
That’s not to say all charges are fair. In three instances — one county clerk, and two school districts — we have been charged more than originally asked for because we requested a specific breakdown of charges. They admitted that they had not given an accurate accounting, and raised the price.
What is honest? Charging for information? Charging more to correctly charge for information? As Cynthia has emphasized, withholding information certainly is dishonest. There’s no way to tell if each charge is accurate, but overall, it is heartening to see that there is not a take-what-you-can-get pattern.
If you have any insight or comments about the accuracy of charges for public information, please leave a comment below or email me.
* Though the Shelby County clerk did not charge for election results, and was immediately compliant with Cynthia’s request, she was implicated in some rather unsavory political finance activities, according to The Associated Press. She’s mentioned in the last third of the article.