Pricey public records

The Public Records Law could become its own stimulus package, saving public jobs and generating a healthy revenue stream for cash-strapped government agencies by charging thousands of dollars to fulfill information requests.

Case in point: A joint investigation by CommonWealth magazine and the Fox Undercover team at WFXT-TV (Channel 25) into the dealings of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. As part of the investigation into city workers appearing to get a disproportionate number of affordable housing units,  Fox Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet sent the BRA a public records request for documents related to the agency’s Inclusionary Development Program (IDP), where people with household incomes as high as $100,000 could qualify for subsidized housing.

The BRA’s  estimated cost to produce the documents: $47,000. That’s $47,000 for 422 folders containing public information.

Tammy Donovan, special assistant to executive director Brian Golden, informed Beaudet that there each file would cost $112, not including copying fees at 20 cents per page. The cost breakdown was one hour of search time FOR EACH FILE plus three hours of “segregation” time FOR EACH FILE times $28 per hour, for a total of $47,264.

Donovan said the records would be sent over but indicated much would be blacked out. The information Fox was seeking was what city employees got the units, how much they made and whether they were selected through the affordable housing lottery or got the unit on a first-come-first-served basis. According to Donovan’s breakdown, all that would be available to Fox would be the project name, the owner name and the address and number of the IDP units, all information CommonWealth and Fox had already unearthed through Registry of Deeds records and other sources.

For some perspective, the four-hour estimate for each file would work out to a 42-week undertaking for one employee, figuring in a 37.5-hour work week. Add in the 13 holidays the city observes plus at least 15 days vacation and personal days and it is a one-year job, including benefits.

BRA officials, who did not return calls for comment, sent Beaudet a revised estimate when he pared back his request to just the applicant’s affidavit of eligibility. The BRA said that request would cost $2,800 to produce, plus another $720 for copying.

The BRA’s response is another example of the way state and local agencies have found a way to circumvent Massachusetts public records laws by charging requesters, usually members of the media, thousands of dollars for documents that are generated by and in possession of government bureaucrats. Public officials have apparently figured out that dwindling resources in newsrooms will make reporters and editors think twice about how much they value these records when they see a four- and five-figure bills.

To add insult to injury, much of the cost ends up going to pay someone to redact information the agency deems not covered by the Public Records Law, making each page look more like a zebra than a government record.

“Public records should be for the public, not just available to people with tens of thousands of dollars to spend,” said Andrew F. Costello Jr., a journalism professor at Stonehill College and former top editor at the Boston Herald. “The intent of the law is to make them available to the public. There’s been a pattern (among public officials) to that, charging high fees to make it hard to get records.”

Costello said there are some legitimate costs associated with gathering and copying records, but he says officials too often use expense to thwart legitimate public records requests.

“Most news budgets won’t allow for the types of costs involved in those requests,” Costello said. “There’s no way with the present economic situation in newspapers, there’s no way they can afford those costs. . . I think (public officials) are using that.”

Jack Sullivan is the senior investigative reporter at CommonWealth magazine.

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