Public record requests must be affordable

On October 4, 2011

Florida's Sunshine Laws are intended to keep the state's government transparent and accountable. Whenever public records information is requested, the price is no more than the lowest paid employee's labor capable of the job plus the cost to make the copies, according to Florida Statutes.

Florida Sen. Michael Fasano (R-New Port Richey) was in for a surprise, then, when he filed a public records request and was sent an invoice of $10,750.13 for an estimated 380 hours of legal analysis over several months, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Some documents require more technical analysis than others, but such high costs for public records are prohibitive to ensuring accountability and limit the Sunshine Laws ability to provide transparency.

Fasano's request was in regard to a $125 million investment of public pension money in a hedge fund called Starboard Value and Opportunity, which Ash Williams, head of the State Board of Administration (SBA), approved in 2010, according to the Times. The problem is that Thomas Strauss, head of the fund that spun off Starboard Value and Opportunity, was a client of Williams prior to becoming SBA head in 2008.

In a letter to SBA's trustees, Fasano wrote that he didn't "want to accuse anyone of attempting to hide anything," but found "a $10,000 bill … sent with a warning that it could take months to supply the information requested" suspicious, according to the Times.

The cost of complying with the request of 6000 pages requires 300 hours of paralegal work at $22.84 an hour, according to the Times. In addition to the paralegal work, 80 hours must be spent on fees for lawyers, "information technology work," a senior investment officer and a senior analyst's work, as well as another $450 for 3,000 photocopies.

Fasano's situation isn't the only recent case of a public official balking at the high cost of public records. Former New Port Richey human resources director Jeff Sutton filed a City Hall email records request, which was "usually filled at little cost or no cost," and received a $850 bill, according to the Times.

The fees of these public records requests are prohibitively costly to legislators - let alone normal citizens. Legal documents may require a large amount of analysis, and legal expenses can be costly, but such important financial records need to be within the grasp of politicians, journalists, writers, regulators and citizens. Something must be reformed to make important requests records like these able "to be inspected … under reasonable conditions," as stated in Florida Statute 119.07, 1(a).

If the fees billed are correct, then the government should look to alternatives such as subsidizing information requests if that is what it takes to ensure accountability. These fees are cost-prohibitive to the point that they do not offer fair access for all. These high legal fees provide a barrier to branches of government outside the executive, and threaten to tip the control of information in Florida if they are not reformed.

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