Court Says Portland, Oregon City Government Can No Longer Screw Public Records Requesters With Excessive Fees

from the gently-reminding-the-public-who's-paying-whose-salary dept

It's a small win for the plaintiff -- probably less than $100 in total -- but it's a bigger win for the residents of Portland, Oregon. The Multnomah County Court says the city has been routinely overcharging public records requesters for fulfilling routine public records requests. (via Merrick Law, LLC)

The brief ruling [PDF] contains enough detail to show how city employees inflated costs they passed on to requesters who were made to pay up front before document searches would commence. In this case, the requester (Alan Kessler) sought metadata from four government email accounts. The city first gave him an estimate of $205.61, based on an estimated two hours of search and prep time with a 39% markup for "overhead costs."

As the court notes, the city admitted the overhead costs collected rarely went to cover employee overhead. On top of that, the hourly rate used was calculated using the hourly wages of the employees performing the search. This sounds reasonable, but it actually isn't. In this case, the search was performed by two of the city's higher-paid employees, both of whom appear to be overqualified for the work they'd been tasked to do.

Mike Nichols, an Information Systems Technical Analyst V, conducted the search of relevant email accounts. The City's estimate for Nichols wage rate was $78.15 per hour. This rate was incorrect. The actual wage rale plus 39% should have been $66.09 per hour. Nichols' actual time billed for the search was 1.25 hours. Nichols' time record attributed 1 hour to the search.

[...]

Paul Rothi, the City Enterprise Architect Manager, conducted the oversight and record keeping at a rate of $91.92 per hour for 0.5 hours, Rothi's records show the time he billed to plaintiff's request totaled 37 minutes, rather than 30.

Once this search was completed, it was handed off to a third person. This person, the city's Public Records Coordinator, did everything but coordinate public records once she received the request. First, she added another 2.5 hours to the estimate, raising the cost by $106. Then she devoted her partial attention to it over the next month while suffering an illness, attending a funeral, and spending six days covering someone else's job.

As the court notes, this estimate process has almost nothing to do with actual costs and artificially inflates them by handing the job over to some of the city's highest-paid employees.

Here, the City presented testimony and evidence of the hourly rates (including the 39% mark-up for benefits) for two employees involved in responding to plaintiff's public records request along with the City's fee schedule established by City ordinance. The City also presented testimony that no study had been done relating to the fees charged by the Bureau of Technology Services, rather the City occasionally brought in consultants to review rates and overhead costs.

Rothi testified that when preparing an estimate for a public records requester, he prepared a "worst case" estimate. Rothi and Nichols are two highly paid members of the BTS department. The City presented no evidence of the rates charged for other members of the department who may have been available to conduct the records search. The City presented no evidence of the rates charged for Baribeau's records review.

The city argued this was okay because it gave refunds to requesters who had been overcharged. But the court points out that there's actually no mechanism in place to challenge fee assessments or demand refunds. Requesters just have to hope the city is being honest in its assessment of costs and that they will see a refund check if the city decides it has overcharged a requester.

Since this request resulted in litigation, there's no reason to believe the city reviews request fees it has collected and issues refunds voluntarily. The plaintiff was refunded $52.00, but this happened more than a month after he filed his lawsuit. That appears to have been the motivating factor.

That's not nearly good enough, the court says. The city needs to change the way it assesses fees and handles refunds. The order gives the city a list of things to correct while blocking it from overcharging for routine document searches in the future.

The City's current method for determining fees for routine email and document search, including providing a "worst case estimate" IS NOT reasonably calculated to reimburse it for its actual cost of making the records available and results in overcharging the public records requester without providing a method to refund of any overcharges.

The City is hereby enjoined from charging excessive fees for routine email and document searches.

The City must recalculate the time spent responding to Plaintiff's public records request at the lowest hourly rate charged by any department personnel who could be responsible for responding to public records requests, plus any overhead factor, and refund Plaintiff the difference, if any, over and above the $52.00 already refunded to Plaintiff.

The city is also responsible for part of the requester's legal fees since he partially prevailed in his lawsuit. The final total won't be in the thousands of dollars, but this small win for Kessler is a bigger win for other Oregonians. The city can't continue to hand public records work to people at the top end of the wage scale and assume that follows the spirit and letter of the law.

Excessive fees deter requesters -- something that only benefits governments opposed to accountability and transparency. Deterrence may not have been the goal here, but it's a fortunate side effect. Now that option is gone, at least for public records requests determined to be "routine."

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Filed Under: excessive fees, foia, journalism, oregon, portland, public records, transparency


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  1. icon
    ECA (profile), 22 Nov 2019 @ 5:58pm

    Why in hell..

    3 employee, 2 of which seem to be very high pay?? Wish I had their jobs.
    All 3 being paid for by the state and your taxes, and this is PART of their job?? And they CHARGE for it on top of wages??

    so, do they get Double time?? I really want those jobs..
    What would you do with $100,000 per year??
    Live as low as I could and bury the money until I had $1,000,000..
    And retire happy?? 2% interest would be $20,000 per year..


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