Under the state of Missouri’s Sunshine Act, material that is deemed to be in the public’s interest can be provided to individuals and news agencies, if it is deemed to be in the public’s interest to see.
However, the city of Ferguson has decided that materials related to the death of Michael Brown are not in the public’s interest. CBS News reports that requests that they turn over government files related to the murder of the unarmed African-American teenager are being met with exorbitant costs — some more than 10 times that of some of their own employees’ salaries — for the records.
This move, according to CBS, is discouraging journalists and civil rights groups from investigating the shooting and its aftermath.
The news station says that,
The city has demanded high fees to produce copies of records that, under Missouri law, it could give away free if it determined the material was in the public’s interest to see. Instead, in some cases, the city has demanded high fees with little explanation or cost breakdown. It billed The Associated Press $135 an hour – for nearly a day’s work – merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting.
That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk’s office, and it didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them.
Price-gouging for government files is one way that local, state and federal agencies have responded to requests for potentially embarrassing information they may not want released. Open records laws are designed to give the public access to government records at little or no cost, and have historically exposed waste, wrongdoing and corruption.
“The first line of defense is to make the requester go away,” said Rick Blum, a coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative. “Charging exorbitant fees to simply cut and paste is a popular tactic.”
Organizations like the website Buzzfeed were told they’d have to pay unspecified thousands of dollars for emails and memos about Ferguson’s traffic-citation policies and changes to local elections. The Washington Post said Ferguson wanted no less than $200 for its requests.
A city spokeswoman referred inquiries about public records requests to the city’s attorney, Stephanie Karr, who declined to respond to repeated interview requests from the AP since earlier this month.
In August, the AP asked for copies of police officials’ e-mails and text messages, including Darren Wilson and Chief Thomas Jackson in an effort to reveal the behind-the-scenes response to the shooting and protests. Though the AP requested a waiver, as those materials are certainly of public interest, the request was denied. Ferguson demanded nearly $2,000 to pay a consulting firm to compile that information.
The ACLU filed a public records lawsuit shortly after the shooting, but received heavily-redacted reports that omitted information normally contained in them — including officers’ names.
Ferguson has not exactly been forthcoming with information. While they were quick to attempt to demonize the young victim with a video allegedly showing him committing a “strong-arm robbery” (though most would call it shoplifting) that eventually lost credibility when it was revealed that neither the store owner, nor any employee, called police, the Police Department responded to requests for actual documents related to the shooting with far less enthusiasm.
Ferguson initially claimed that an incident report for the shooting did not exist, but later provided a heavily-redacted document that tells absolutely nothing. Later, after Police Chief Thomas Jackson offered a non-apology to Michael Brown’s family, the department claimed that there is no Use of Force report, either. This document is required by Ferguson Police Department policy, and has still not materialized.
At this point, the question must be asked: What are they hiding?