From backlogs at the federal level to legal limitations at state and local, requesters are no strangers to the barriers met in access to information. But every now and then, an agency will make a demand so brazen or just plain bizarre that it’ll bring even the jaded #FOIA community to pause.
Such was the case in Alabama when national data reporter for GateHouse Media, Lucille Sherman, had to sign a form agreeing to be “invoiced in full” for any fees attached to her records request before seeing any quote at all.
I’ve been asked to fill out this form in order to file a records request, in addition to signing this very... interesting agreement. pic.twitter.com/qN5V6EdvR3— Lucille Sherman (@_lucysherman) March 25, 2019
The form came from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office after Sherman submitted a request to the Alabama State Board of Midwifery for current data on midwives, including the mailing addresses of licensed midwives.
“I’ve actually requested this same thing in at least one, but as many as two, agencies in every state in the last year and haven’t run into anything like this,” said Sherman.
A similar request was filed to the Alabama Board of Nursing for the names and addresses of certified nurse midwives. That request was filed for free, with no forms, or any other unprecedented road blocks.
The form provided to Sherman asks that she agree to pay the unknown price to produce records, and also waive rights to her homestead and personal property exemptions. If she refused to pay, the agency could sue Sherman in a venue of their choosing. It should be noted that the state’s public records law doesn’t include a schedule on fees nor does it have strict levels as to how much an agency can charge to produce records. In a 1998 opinion, the Attorney General’s office noted that agencies should provide free copies of records when appropriate.
“If possible, a public agency should provide free copies of public records. However, if budgetary constraints prevent this, then a public agency may charge a nominal fee, if necessary, to cover its costs in providing copies of public records. One may inspect public records without paying a fee unless a substantial amount of an employee’s time is required.” *251 Op. Att’y Gen. Ala. 38 (June 12, 1998) *
Currently, Sherman hasn’t filled out the form, or been given an estimate as to how much the potential request would be.
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