Cambridge leads its neighbors in arbitrary public records fees

“Every request for information made to the City of Cambridge since 2014 for which the city has records has met with a fee, ranging from $3.22 to $9088.20”

Written by Brian Sparks
Edited by JPat Brown

Six years ago, MuckRock’s Michael Morisy heard a rumor that the City of Cambridge was considering adding illustrations of people doing yoga to its parking tickets. So he filed a Massachusetts Public Records request, asking the city for the concept art, which the city promptly sent to Mr. Morisy.

Requests like Mr. Morisy’s are the reason public records laws exist: government should be accountable to citizens, whether the issue at hand happens to be yoga poses on parking tickets or something more substantial, like use of force policies for police officers.

Yet within the last the couple of years, the City of Cambridge, more often than most Massachusetts jurisdictions, adds unnecessary barriers between its citizens and the information they seek. For example, when Don Warner Saklad asked for the meeting minutes of the city’s Library Board in November 2013, and quickly received them. When he asked again in March 2014, the city assessed a $4.42 fee to access these records, despite the fact that by the city’s own admission, the task had taken all of six minutes.

Some requests have the potential to take hours of work, and nobody but the most ardent of transparency advocates disputes the government’s right to ask the requestor to pay a reasonable fee to help cover this. But if search time and copying costs are minimal, most agencies waive these small fees in the public interest - citizens have a right to access, and even the smallest fee represent a barrier. And yet time and time again, Cambridge has refused to waive fees, even when nearby municipalities have been happy to do so.

Case in point - in 2014, Cambridge assessed a fee of $54 to a request for dog registration data, while neighboring Somerville provided that information free of charge. A few months later, Cambridge asked for $22.26 from a requestor seeking an inventory of city trees, while nearby Newton released the same inventory at no cost.

In fact, setting aside requests made to Cambridge Police, every request for information made to the City of Cambridge since 2014 for which the city has records has met with a fee, ranging from $3.22 to $9088.20.

Again, this has not always been the case - of all the completed Public Records Act requests made to the City of Cambridge via MuckRock, twenty have been completed at no cost to the requestor. Through this process Mary Connaughton was able to learn the cost of compensated absences to Cambridge city employees. Jasper Craven found the cost of a bomb scare on Harvard Campus. Shawn Musgrave found that Cambridge had successfully collected thousands of bottles of unwanted prescription drugs through an anonymous dropbox program. And Michael Morisy, previously the investigator of yoga poses on parking tickets, was able to find city records on bed bugs.

As for the last one, compare this response …

To this one, from Beryl Lipton’s request for the city’s data on gas leaks.

A FOIA request seeking to discover how much the City of Cambridge charged its citizens to fulfill FOIA requests was returned with the claim that the city had no documentation on the matter. That letter, graciously provided by the city free of charge, has been embedded below.

Image via Wikimedia Commons