Government Agency Says It Will Cost $1.5 Million To Compile Birth/Death Data, Then Refuses To Release It At All

from the ain't-no-sunshine-when-she's-withholding dept

The easiest way to thwart a public records request is to demand a ridiculous amount of money up front. The McKinney Texas Police Department tried to chase away a request for records on a controversial cop by asking for $79,000 to fulfill it. Florida's state attorney's office stiff-armed a mother requesting official documents related to her own daughter's suicide by telling her it would cost at least $180,000 to round up the records. Even the federal government gets in on this action, with the FBI telling MuckRock it would cost more than a quarter-million dollars to deliver its records on government contractor Booz Allen.

Here we have more of the same… only with even higher fees and a government agency plainly uninterested in fulfilling a request.

Back in February, a nonprofit group called Reclaim the Records filed requests for Missouri birth and death listings from 1910 through 2015.

The California-based outfit describes itself as a “group of genealogists, historians, researchers, and open government advocates who are filing Freedom of Information requests to get public data released back into the public domain.”

The group sought the information under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. After more than four months, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) finally got back to Reclaim the Records with an estimate of what its request would cost.

A letter from the legal office of the department estimated the birth list would take the agency 23,376 hours to compile and the death list 11,688 hours. At $42.50 an hour, the tab came to an eye-popping $1.5 million.

Faced with a $1.5 million tab, Reclaim the Records went with the cheaper option: hiring a lawyer. Kansas City attorney Bernard Rhodes wrote a letter to the department suggesting it could handle this on a range-of-years basis (rather than the per-day search the DHSS proposed) for a presumably much lower cost. The letter resulted in savings of nearly 100%.

A few days after that, [DHSS General Counsel Nikki] Loethen emailed Rhodes and told him the department was revising the cost estimate down – to around $5,000, or a 99.7 percent decrease.

If this fee sounds reasonable, it's only in comparison to the $1.5 million the DHSS wanted earlier. What should be a simple search of existing digital records was being made needlessly complex and expensive by the DHSS. Rhodes suggested the department utilize a single search covering several years at a time, rather than the options the DHSS had proposed.

At that point, the DHSS decided it was no longer interested in working with Reclaim the Records.

A few days later, however, Loethen advised Rhodes that the department would refuse to provide the records altogether.

I guess this is Plan B. When Plan A -- make requesters an offer they can't refuse accept -- doesn't work out, the next move is generally summed up in two words: "Sue us."

Reclaim the Records has now joined countless other individuals and entities in suing the government to release records that rightfully belong to the public. And in Missouri, the DHSS's responses are pretty much just normal government business.

Reclaim the Records’ dispute with DHSS comes against the backdrop of a November report by Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway on local governments’ compliance with the Sunshine Law. Galloway’s office made public records requests of 326 randomly selected political subdivisions in the state, and more than a third failed to respond in a timely fashion and another 15.5 percent didn’t respond at all, the report found. Galloway estimated that 65.3 percent “would not fully comply with public record requests.”

“By failing to properly and timely respond to requests or denying requests unjustifiably, political subdivisions risk fines, lawsuits, and loss of credibility with their constituency,” the report stated.

Perhaps it's time for the state to come up with a new slogan. The "Show Me" state isn't showing much. And it's charging some every excessive admission.

What makes this all worse is Reclaim the Records knows the records request could be fulfilled very easily. The same data the nonprofit is requesting is already available. The state sells this data to third parties but won't turn them over to a public records requester. Unlike several states, Missouri doesn't make this data openly available by publishing it online. It locks it up and charges for access, and one imagines the $1.5 million it asked Reclaim the Records for is far higher than it would have charged if the nonprofit had simply asked to buy it.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2016 @ 3:08pm

    Oh, the state's slogan is right...

    ...just not complete.

    "Show me" - the money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 21 Dec 2016 @ 3:16pm

    "Wait, if we do this we can't sell it..."

    What makes this all worse is Reclaim the Records knows the records request could be fulfilled very easily. The same data the nonprofit is requesting is already available. The state sells this data to third parties but won't turn them over to a public records requester.

    I imagine they came up with the insane cost to drive off Reclaim as a 'bother', dropped the price when they realized that they were facing a lawsuit, and decided that they weren't going to provide the information at all once they realized that if they handed it over to a non-profit said non-profit would likely make it freely available, eliminating their ability to charge for the information in the future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2016 @ 5:00pm

      Re: "Wait, if we do this we can't sell it..."

      My mind is blown every time I see something that was generated with public funding (research, documents, data) that is then sold off for personal gain. How the hell is that legal? It sure as hell ain't moral.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2016 @ 3:38pm

    Simple solution is

    create a "for profit" business that buys the data and then sells it to the "non-profit" for the same amount. "for profit" owned by "non-profit" (or something like that.

    This will also poison the well for other "for profits" thta buy the "public domain" data from said "for profit government".

    Simple, see.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2016 @ 4:08pm

      Re: Simple solution is

      Presumably part of the contract when purchasing this data is that you're not allowed to resell or disseminate it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Get off my cyber-lawn! (profile), 21 Dec 2016 @ 4:13pm

    The only way to stop this stupidity

    is to pass laws making the INDIVIDUAL responsible for any fines received for willfully ignoring the law. Fining the AGENCY has no impact upon the employee so there is zero incentive to actually DO THEIR JOB and OBEY THE LAW.

    Zero accountability leads to zero productivity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anon E. Mous (profile), 21 Dec 2016 @ 8:39pm

    Is there a cost to providing FOIA information sure, are the costs cited by these three agencies a true picture of what it would take or is this obfuscation, I would bet that it is the later.

    When an agency doesn't want to provide you the information you seek because they dont want you to have a true picture of what has happened then this is the exact opposite of what the FOIA is all about and those who purposely try to deny access to the info are in violation of the act.

    Federal, state and civic goverment and their relate entities love to use high FOIA access costs to thwart releasing what they dont want a requester to see, and this is totally not open, accessible and transparent government that the people are being told over and over again what they are going to receive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2016 @ 9:44pm

    So, if an agency responds to an FOIA request with some astronomical fee, couldn't you then also make a FOIA request for documentation on how they calculated that fee? I'd be interested to see how they really came up with the 35,000 hour figure and the $42.50/hour cost.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Nick, 22 Dec 2016 @ 7:33am

      I know in Florida, at least at some agencies, there is a breakdown of the fee amount and how it is calculated automatically provided when a record request is made. It's based on the hourly rate of the lowest paid employee capable/authorized to fulfill the request. This should be standard.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Dec 2016 @ 2:21am

    A good long term solution

    The best solution I can see for all of these problem with FOIA requests, is to change the law to require all government agencies to make the data public and available without requests. Just require all the information that "could" be available to the public, available with x days of creation (where x is specified in the law).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Dec 2016 @ 6:38am

    Why is anyone surprised ...

    We are talking about Missouri here after all. One of the worst places ever live.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 22 Dec 2016 @ 7:09am

    To get the list of people born over the course of a century, it is going to take 11 man years?

    Compiling these two lists alone could constitute an entire career for someone.

    That's pretty amazing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nick, 22 Dec 2016 @ 7:30am

    This goes both ways. There are private companies that make a living by requesting public records on such a level or at such a frequency that the requests can't possibly be fulfilled, and then suing for attorney's fees. Here's a couple of examples:

    http://www.theledger.com/news/20141109/floridas-sunshine-law-lawsuits-spur-profit-from-publ ic-records

    http://postonpolitics.blog.palmbeachpost.com/2016/01/26/new-limits-on-public-records-stemm ing-from-gulf-stream-clash-clear-senate-panel/

    The public certainly has the right to records, and governments should not charge exorbitant fees, but let's not paint this as a one-sided issue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 22 Dec 2016 @ 9:51am

    If only tech would see this as a real problem & develop a platform to make these sorts of records requests simple to fulfill, then one could see which states are hampering public access to protect their own bottom line by selling off public data for profit.

    There are 10,000+ ways records are stored & filed and for the love of the FSM, why hasn't anyone pushed through a single flat platform? Remove the ever popular it'll take a team of 4000 80,000 hours to tell you how many times this officer was written up. It might have worked in the past but there is no reason this shit should continue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Dec 2016 @ 9:57am

    Heard this recently, but do not recall where.
    They used to build my car in Flint and I couldn't drink the water in Mexico. Now they build my car in Mexico and I can't drink the water in Flint.
    When we can prove that this anal retention of data by the state was responsible for one death we will own their gonads.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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