Ferguson Caught Gouging Reporters on Information Requests

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Documents released by the City of Ferguson, Missouri to TheBlot Magazine pursuant to an open records request in August. (Photo: Matthew Keys for TheBlot)
Documents released by the City of Ferguson, Mo., to TheBlot Magazine pursuant to an open records request in August. (Photo: Matthew Keys for TheBlot)

The City of Ferguson, Mo., is gouging journalists and news organizations who file records requests pursuant to state law, according to a report by the Associated Press on Monday.

In some cases, journalists are being asked to pay thousands of dollars before the town agrees to turn over records pursuant to requests made under Missouri’s Sunshine law.

According to the AP, one reporter was billed more than $130 an hour by the city for searching “a handful of e-mails” related to the Aug. 9 shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. In another case, a BuzzFeed reporter was told to fork over “thousands of dollars” for e-mails about Ferguson’s traffic-citation policies and other matters. The city demanded around $200 from The Washington Post for a similar request.

The AP said it did not pay the fee for documents related to its request.

Under Missouri’s Sunshine law, city officials are permitted to charge individuals — including journalists — for copies of documents related to open records requests. The law allows officials to charge 10 cents per page as well as “average hourly rate of pay for clerical staff to duplicate documents” and a rate for time spent researching and copying the documents. Under the law, the “public governmental body use the lowest salaried employees capable of searching, researching and copying the records.”

According to the AP, the lowest-paid city clerk employed by Ferguson makes around $13 an hour, around 10 percent what the news agency was requested to pay for documents. The AP said the $130 an hour rate “didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them.”

Journalists and news organizations can request “fee waivers” by arguing that the release of information would serve the public interest, but officials are given discretion under the law as to whether or not those waivers will be granted. The AP said it requested a fee waiver, but was turned down.

In August, TheBlot Magazine filed an open records request for information on a surveillance tape that had been distributed by the Ferguson Police Department six days after Brown’s death. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said at a press briefing on Aug. 15 that although the tape was unrelated to the shooting, the agency was forced to release it because “a lot” of reporters had requested it.

A review of documents produced under TheBlot’s records request found that no individual, journalist or news organization requested the surveillance tape before police released it.

TheBlot’s request was fulfilled in late August. The city charged TheBlot nearly $45 to produce the documents — $32.73 to research and copy the files and $11.39 for shipping to California. The city said the rate was “divided among those agencies making the request.” According to a review of records, journalists from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Huffington Post and Newsweek requested the same documents that were given to TheBlot.

After our story was published, Ferguson city attorney Stephanie Karr countered claims that the Ferguson police chief had misled the public by suggesting verbal requests had been made for the surveillance footage before police released it. “City personnel cataloged all requests and treated them in the same manner as it would any Sunshine Law request,” Karr told the Huffington Post.

Karr refused to respond to inquiries about the verbal catalogue. A subsequent review of more than 230 pages given to TheBlot by the city found that some verbal and hand-written requests had been made, but all were made after police released the surveillance footage, and none of them specifically requested the tape.

The AP has also had difficulty reaching city officials about its requests. “Inquiries about Ferguson’s public records requests were referred to the city’s attorney, Stephanie Karr, who declined to respond to repeated interview requests from the AP since earlier this month,” the news organization said.

Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine. 

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