November 27, 2021

ARE YOU BEING OVERCHARGED FOR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUESTS?  

4 min read

The Wisconsin Open Records Laws are in place so the people are able to request documents from their government agencies to know what those agencies are up to.  Sometimes records are exempt by statute to protect certain kinds of documents from disclosure but most are not.  So what if you are requesting something but the agency is charging fees that make the records impossible to obtain.  Why would they do this?  Well, sometimes it has been found to be a tactic to keep records from being discovered.  Records that may show malfeasance in office or may reveal other problems or simply as a way to make a person go away.  Under the law for open records in Wisconsin, the public agency subject to records requests may not profit from a request. 

While agencies may charge for the cost to locate records, it may not charge for the time it takes to go through and redact records that contain exempt information.  They also must charge you at a rate of the lowest paid employee capable of doing the job.  Other fee’s charged may not seem out of line but very well might be if the fee being charged isn’t associated to the actual direct and necessary cost to supply the record.  In other word, if records are being emailed then is there really a direct and necessary cost in reproducing those records?  If records are being provided by paper copy, are those being charged at the cost of a sheet of paper and toner?  Are a massive amount of records being provided on a blank data dvd?  What are they charging for the dvd?  For Instance the Mauston Police Department has an automatic $10 charge per disc. 

While some things agencies are allowed by state statute to charge a certain amount for certain records, that list is limited.  But the fees charged for the medium they go on is suspect if it is more than the cost of say a single blank cd/dvd.  Many agencies are able to charge these fees because generally the public is none the wiser and it doesn’t get challenged.  Over the next few month the Juneau County Herald is going to do just that however with various agencies in Juneau County.  We will find out from various government agencies their fee’s for public records, ask for statutory authority that allows a higher fee and push to bring all other fees in line with the actual direct and necessary costs.  We will publish our findings in future issues.  Our hope is to ensure it is affordable and properly priced for those who ask for records.

On the next page we show a fee schedule put out by the Wisconsin Department of Justice Office of Open Government.  They outline a model of charges based on the cost of paper/toner or the medium for which records are delivered.  While pricing may fluctuate slightly due to various factors, such as copy machine contracts for example, the price shouldn’t be too far off. 

The DOJ Office of Open Government receives numerous complaints every year from citizens who are concerned about the high fees a government agency wants to charge them.  There is also a growing trend of  government agencies denying records by means of excessive fees as a means to keep people from getting the records they are seeking.  A lot of times they know the person won’t be able to pay it and will just drop the request.

Another problem people run into when requesting emails is certain officials using their personal email during the course of their official business.  This can pose many problems and invite abuse of handing over records.  Emails can often be deleted in personal accounts and the public is none the wiser.  While the use of personal email accounts appears to be legal, it should not be considered proper for transparency.  In emails released that are mentioned in another article in this issue, it was questioned by a PFC member if it was legal for people to request emails from their personal email.  Mauston Administrator Randy Reeg made a great suggestion to set the PFC members up with a city email address.  This would make it easier for records to be obtained by the public. 

If you have requested public records in the past couple years and have been charged for those requests, we want to hear from you.  You can send us an email at news@jcherald.com

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