Your FOIA fee stories this week: A tale of two email searches

Your FOIA fee stories this week: A tale of two email searches

Plus, Cook County claims Illinois’ public records law’s fee waiver provisions don’t apply

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

MuckRock is currently taking submissions of your FOIA fee stories. With just one week into our crowdsource, requesters far and wide have brought their issues to the table. While submitted responses vary, overall they show major discrepancies in the FOIA fee system across the country.

Key takeways

Across the board we’re hearing complaints high fees in local and state jurisdictions, even after requesters negotiated their fees down. Currently, the lowest fee submitted is at $105 and the highest at $12,000. Even more alarming, a requester filing in Illinois found that their fee waiver request was denied by Cook County as they claimed that “the county ordinance does not contain a fee waiver or reduction provision.” However, in Illinois the law states that anyone that can prove they are requesting in the public’s interest will have their fees either waived entirely or reduced through a fee waiver.

Two requesters shared their experience asking for email records with local and state agencies. Although the requests were filed in different states, both requesters saw fees of over $1,000.

One requester asked the University of Maryland for a professor’s email correspondence. Their request asked for key phrases and words in those emails, along with a date range. The University gave a fee estimate of $12,000 dollars. After speaking with the University, the requester was able to negotiate the fee down to $1,000, but only after significantly narrowing down the scope of the request. Nonetheless, $1,000 is still a lot of money, and the requester ultimately withdrew because of it.

The second requester filed to the Governor’s Office in Vermont asking for email metadata. The Office estimated the request could be fulfilled at a charge of $1,400. However, the requester was savvy enough to write out step-by-step instructions on how the agency could retrieve the documents quickly and easily. The ambitious feat proved well as the requester received his documents, free of charge.

Every person that submitted a response thus far has noted that their initial fee was too high, and reached out to the agency or officer to try and negotiate or waive the fee. Only one person was able to pay their fee in full and only one person - the requester trying to get records out of Vermont - was successful in waiving their fee (and even then, only after doing the heavy lifting for the agency).

Lessons learned

So far, we’ve learned that FOIA fees are not a black and white process, which means there is enough wiggle room to haggle - but not quite enough wiggle room to get the fees waived entirely, unless you do the agency’s work for them.

We also learned the importance of knowing the law. If you file a request and ask for a fee waiver, you should know if your state allows for waivers or not in the first place. For example, in Alabama there are no fee waivers for public records. Therefore, if you’re filing in that state you should find out exactly how much your agency charges before filing a records request.

With all that in mind, don’t be afraid to fight for your right. Records are for the public and should be accessible at any costs. You might hit significant roadblocks along the way, but as long as you’re aware of your FOIA and public records law, you’ll be able to actively engage in a productive discussion with agencies - and like in Cook County, catch them making claims that aren’t backed up by the law.

Do you have a FOIA fee story you want to share with us? Fill out the form below and tell us! Your input will help create useful resources in tackling FOIA fees and developing strategies that all requesters can use. We’ll talk to other journalists who have had to deal with fee barriers and share their best practices. Plus, we’ll look at the other side of the coin and get the inside scoop on agencies fee regulations. You can check out our most recent fee slack chat for tips from other MuckRock users on how to navigate fees.

Image via LibreShot