City Claims It Will Take 9,000 Hours And $79,000 To Fulfill Gawker's Request Emails Related To Abusive Police Officer
from the we'll-open-our-records-if-you'll-open-your-wallet dept
The McKinney (Texas) Police Department is under lots of outside scrutiny, thanks to the racially-tinged antics of its police force -- namely the since-departed Officer Eric Casebolt, who barrel rolled into infamy in a cell phone-captured video that culminated in him pinning down a 14-year-old girl while waving a gun at two teens.
Since that point, multiple entities have filed public records requests with the police department. An interim response given to MuckRock's Shawn Musgrave lists 61 requests as of June 19th, a number that has certainly increased since that point. One of the early requesters was Gawker's Andy Cush, who sought "[Officer Eric] Casebolt’s records and any emails about his conduct sent or received by McKinney Police Department employees."
Cush just received a response from the city's legal representatives claiming it will cost nearly $80,000 to compile this information.
The city arrived at that extraordinary figure after estimating that hiring a programmer to execute the grueling and complex task of searching through old emails would cost $28.50 per hour, and that the search for emails about Casebolt would take 2,231 hours of said programmer’s time. That only comes to about $63,000; the bill also includes $14,726 “to cover the actual time a computer resource takes to execute a particular program.” In other words, the operating cost of the computer used to search the emails is nearly 15 grand on its own.Perhaps in an effort to make this stratospherically-high fee appear more reasonable, the law firm broke it all down in table form.
According to the city's lawyers, this exorbitant estimated fee is due to the police department switching over to a new email system on March 1, 2014. Apparently, every email created before then can't be searched without hiring a programmer to create a new program from the ground up. Whatever email software the city used prior to this apparently created email in an "unsearchable" format.
This estimate reeks of… well, several things (arrogance, obfuscation...), but mainly of bullshit. I find it hard to believe city personnel are unable to search older emails, especially considering "older" only means "slightly more than a year old," rather than "stored on punchcards." It boggles the mind that a move to a new email system would cut several years of emails irrevocably adrift from the rest of the city government's computing system -- or that the city would be fine with a lack of basic search options post-upgrade.
The city is claiming it will take a year of 40-hour work weeks for a programmer to create a search system for pre-2014 emails. Worse, it claims the same even if "an existing system" is used. That may just be boilerplate language for fee estimates, but it also could be closer to the truth than its "one year of programming" claim. No matter which system is used -- the "existing" or the bespoke -- the city still claims it will still take an unreasonable amount of time to search the system. According to the estimate, it will take roughly three years of 40-hour work weeks to "execute a particular program."
This appears to be nothing more than an attempt to dissuade requesters from pursuing information about Eric Casebolt or the McKinney Police Department. This "make 'em pay" strategy is as old as open records laws themselves. The city of Ferguson hit a number of journalists with exorbitant fees in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. The Florida State Attorney's office told a requester seeking information on the alleged (and highly suspicious) suicide of her daughter that it would cost nearly $180,000 to fulfill her request.
Gawker's options here are pretty limited. It can either limit its request to post-March 2014 emails as suggested by the city's lawyers (pretty much useless if seeking a full representation of Eric Casebolt's career) or it can petition the state attorney general to take a look at the city's claims.
A person who believes the person has been overcharged for being provided with a copy of public information may complain to the attorney general in writing of the alleged overcharge, setting forth the reasons why the person believes the charges are excessive. The attorney general shall review the complaint and make a determination in writing as to the appropriate charge for providing the copy of the requested information.This particular avenue of recourse has been used frequently in the past. A 2012 examination of Texas open records requests by the Center for Public Integrity found McKinney ranked highest in the state in the number of fee complaints to the state attorney general (per 100,000 residents). Not all of these were fee-related, but the ratio of referred requests suggests the local government is more reluctant to turn over responsive documents than its neighbors. A spokeswoman for the city notes in the article that requests related to the police department are treated with "an overabundance of caution." This response to Gawker, however, seems not so much cautious as confrontational -- a "shut up and go away" response in the form of a thoroughly ridiculous $79,000 price tag.
I have reached out to the city employees listed in the letter to Gawker, asking for details on the current and pre-2014 email systems, as well as any methods used by city employees to access older emails. I'm not expecting an answer, but if one should materialize, it will be passed on.