Southeast Idaho couple learns the steep cost of government access

From the Idaho Statesman

By Cynthia Sewell

When Rhonda and Eric D’Amico decided to exercise their right under Idaho law to see public records, they were surprised when Idaho State University told them to fork over $1,235.

Not easily deterred, the D’Amicos decided to set up an online fundraising campaign to help pay the tab.

Within three days of an Idaho State Journal article about their plight, the D’Amicos had the money, which was used to get ISU to turn over the documents.

“Citizens are truly interested in the public process and even willing to pay for it out of their own pockets,” Rhonda D’Amico said.

The D’Amicos didn’t start out to be public records crusaders.

But when plans for ISU to spend $600,000 on a new home for its president surfaced last fall, the D’Amicos wanted to know more about the plan and why the school wanted to jettison the existing president’s house, the historic Servel House, which the school said was in need of a $795,000 remodel. They submitted a public records request for Servel House receipts, labor costs, inventory and renovation estimates.

Then they got the bill.

“We are prepared to complete the process of locating the documents when a check or checks totaling $1,235, made payable to Idaho State University, are presented to General Counsel’s office,” ISU General Counsel David Alexander wrote in a Jan. 8 email to the D’Amicos.

Under state law, agencies can charge a fee to recover the actual labor and material costs of processing a public records fee. The law says the first two hours and 100 pages of paper records must be provided at no cost.

Alexander told the D’Amicos that gathering the documents would require 58.5 to 80.5 hours of staff time at an hourly rate ranging from $15.26 to $58.85.

“We were very surprised by it. But we also felt it was in the public’s best interest, so it was worth our time to get that information out to the public,” D’Amico told the Statesman.

To do it, they went public.

They posted a plea at the fundraising website GoFundMe.com.

“The price for Idaho State University transparency is $1,235,” the D’Amicos wrote on GoFundMe.com. “Please help us learn about the costs behind the Servel House’s estimated renovation costs ($750,000) and average annual maintenance, care, and operating costs ($31,000) as reported to the Idaho State Board of Education.”

Twenty-seven people donated to the cause via GoFundMe.com. Once the D’Amicos reached their goal, they stopped accepting donations.

When they got the 910-page document, the D’Amicos made it available at ISU library so any member of the public could see it.

Rhonda D’Amico said she knew gathering the documents would be a tedious task, but she thinks ISU should have compiled the information prior to her request, because the previous fall the school was prepared to ask the State Board of Education to approve spending $600,000 for the new home. D’Amico said the board would have needed the documentation and reports to bolster its argument that the Servel House was too expensive to keep.

D’Amico said she had no opinion one way or another on the proposal.

“My primary goal was getting the information into the hands of the people making the decision,” she said. She said the public should get to review the data behind the university’s estimated costs.

When she reviewed the documents, D’Amico said she did notice one thing: “There does not seem to be a long-term strategic plan for the Servel House as far as maintenance and operations.”

Since paying the tab, D’Amico learned that state law does allow reporters and citizens to request public records fees be waived if their release is in the public’s interest. Additionally, since assembling her request, a committee the school has set up to review the residence question is examining the same documents she requested.

Since ISU would have had to assemble the information anyway, Rhonda D’Amico reasons, ISU should refund the money.

She has twice asked ISU to refund the $1,235, because the pubic records request served a public benefit. She’s gotten no response.

“If we are refunded, we will make every effort to contact donors and give back the money,” she said. If the D’Amicos cannot reach all the donors – some people gave anonymously – any money not returned will be put into a scholarship run by a non-ISU entity, D’Amico said.

From the Idaho Statesman

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