BRA responds to pricey records requests


Friday, February 19, 2010

The Boston Redevelopment Authority responded to our post about the exorbitant costs of a public records request.

The BRA had hit WFXT-TV’s (Channel 25) Fox Undercover unit with a bill for more than $47,000 for information they were seeking during a joint investigation with CommonWealth magazine surrounding the agency’s affordable housing programs.

“The request received from FOX25-TV was far more labor intensive than most because of the sensitive nature of the personal information requested,” Jessica Shumaker, a BRA spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “In recognition of this, in addition to the quote provided for a full response, the BRA also offered to provide fewer documents containing the core information requested at a far more economical price. The BRA will continue to work with any and all members of the public to provide access to its records.”

Shumaker did not address our calculation that the estimated time for each of the files requested is four hours and, multiplying by the 422 files requested, would total nearly a year’s work for one $28 an hour employee.

But Shumaker insisted that most public records requests are met with minimal cost. “We receive hundreds of Public Records requests annually and in the vast majority of them charge only a nominal fee based on the statutory formula for complying with those requests,” she wrote.

What they don’t tell you, though, is even if they meet a public records request, they’ll still send over reams of documents on your dime that are virtually useless because of the black-outs on the pages.

For instance, last fall, CommonWealth requested all documents related to a loan between the BRA’s Boston Local Development Corporation and the Baystate Banner. After paying $42.60 for copying costs, we received a three-inch thick file with more than two-thirds of the information redacted on documentation submitted by the Banner. We basically received fairly expensive scrap paper without being informed that was what we were paying for.

Posted in: Civic Journalism

Tags: public recordsBoston Redevelopment Authority


Recent Comments:

TimBrewster   says on 3/1/2010 11:19 PM
“I see two interesting problems here: 1st, there seems to be a contradiction in your description of the ease with which agencies can comply with the open meeting law (a vague statute defined more in stare deciesis than on the General Laws). On the one hand, you assume a low level employee can do the simple work of phot-copying documents, sorting them, and mailing them. On the other hand, you state that upwards of 2/3rds of some documents are redacted. I don’t assume that a low level employee is redacting information. As it is a matter of legal compliance, lawyers may need to be involved in complex, or legally sensitive cases. SO it seems plausible that the costs for certain technical or complex documents could be as high as the BRA quoted you, and not simply a matter of dividing the cost by the number of files an employee can process in a year. The OML is a poor law and many governmental bodies and agencies are unclear on compliance. This leads to over zealous efforts at compliance that hinder transparency (the cost of having a big shot lawyer review documents which dirves up cost, or the endless redactions of uneeded information). But if they sent you only the 1/3rd of the document that you needed, instead of redacting the 2/3rds that you did not need, they would not have been in compliance with OML. I would suggest that you focus more on a perpetual form of transparency. Council President Ross and others have been pushing for all BRA docs to be PDFed an availible online. Even if the BRA doesn’t suffer from the OML compliance troubles they claim to, the BRA can always hide behind the legal difficulties and costs of compliance as long as the approach to compliance is a matter of meeting individual requests. The same lawyer could redact the same document a thousand times, with repeating costs, or he could do it once, and put it on the web as a PDF. While I don’t entirely agree with your assessment of the ease of OML compliance, I am glad you are asking the questions. Keep up the good work! ”

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