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'Arbitrary' records fees? Town says 'no'

First, as a reporter in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and then as a publisher in Arlington for 14 years, I have supported the public's right to know. Through those years, I have equally encouraged accuracy.

public records request

Residents need to know what their government is up to, but that information needs to be as precise as possible.

On Oct. 5, a series of residents offered opinions to the Select Board about a number of topics. One of them, Robin Harney, a supporter of Arlington Fights Racism, said that the town is charging “an arbitrary $75 fee” for records requests to multiple Arlington residents.

To find out whether that is accurate, I asked Harney for more detail. I also asked journalist Laura Kiesel, who has filed numerous records requests in connection with her ongoing investigation of Lt. Rick Pedrini.

To get the town's side of the story, I asked Town Counsel Doug Heim. 

'May charge reasonable fee'

He responded Oct. 15: " ... I'm not sure what request Robin Harney is referencing, but of course the answer is no -- it's not arbitrary.

"A records custodian may charge a reasonable fee to recover the costs of complying with a public records request. See G.L. c. 66 sec. 10(a); 950 CMR 32.07.

"Specifically, the Public Records laws allow a town of our size to assess fees when it takes more than 2 hours to satisfy a request and at a set rate of $25 per hour. The rate is set by state law and can only be exceeded with permission from the Supervisor of Public Records. Moreover, the town is explicitly authorized to collect fees before it engages in the work of finding the record."

He wrote that the whole process is outlined in the "fees" section of the Guide to Public Records >> 

'Lot of tequests'

"While everyone -- state agencies and municipalities are encouraged to waive fees, as you can imagine, Arlington receives a lot of requests and while some records are readily available, others are not. Similarly, some records requests are labor intensive, which is the whole purpose of assessing the fees in the first place.

"If compliance with a request requires pulling staff out of their regular duties to search for and compile responsive records, then the town can assess fees to account for its costs. Thus, if an estimate from the Records Access Officer is for $75, all that suggests to me is that five hours of work is estimated to comply with the request (first 2 hours "free" and 3 further hours at $25 per hour)."

Heim copied Assistant Town Manager Ray Santilli, the town's records-access officer, "in case I've missed anything."

Records officer responds

Santilli responded later that day, writing: "During my tenure, more than 98% of public records requests are for records/documents which are readily accessible and available.

"These are usually provided to the requester, with no charge, within a few days of their requests although the statute permits the town 10 business days to provide the requested records.

"As Doug as outlined, the 'good faith cost estimates' provided are not arbitrary. They are primarily for requests for emails for a period of time (sometimes for a year or two or more) to/from specific town staff containing certain words/phrases identified by the requester. These type searches and production of records require extensive extra work by an IT staff person.

"The cost estimate provided individuals is based on what the town’s IT Department believes, in their judgment, will be required to conduct a sufficient, professional search for responsive email correspondence within the parameters the requester has outlined. The estimate will also include staff time to review, segregate, and redact the records (if necessary)."

Asked to specify the number of records requests he has received since June that have drawn fees, Santilli wrote that he has sent out a total of seven "good-faith cost estimates," ranging from $50 (for a total of four hours work) to $250 (for a total of 12 hours work).

Comment offer remains

Asked for comment Oct. 18 and 19, Harney and Kiesel have not responded.

If they do, their comments will be added to this report.

Oct. 7, 2020: Issues of race spur promotion, public comments about policy
June 12, 2019, Dig Boston (Kiesel): Restorative ruckus
June 26, 2019: What further should the town do after officer's harsh comments?

This news summary, which includes opinion, was published Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

Note: The author won a Pennsylvania press award in 1977 based on 75 reports that led to changes in state law opening previously closed public meetings. 

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