Transparency – for a cost at University of Idaho

From the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

By Scott Jackson

The University of Idaho is likely to charge more for public records than Idaho’s other two major universities, based on a recent public records request filed by the Daily News.

A request sent to Boise State University, Idaho State University and the UI seeking the total number of records requests in 2017 and copies of requests that cost more than $25 would have cost an estimated $191.13 for UI’s Office of General Counsel to furnish.

ISU did not charge a single penny to fulfill the request.

BSU also provided the number of requests at no cost but was unable to say how many of those requests cost more than $25, as the university does not monitor how many requests incur a cost.

“We don’t actually track the amount that any request costs, and that’s because the vast majority of them, we don’t charge for,” said Kirsten Heninger, legal assistant with BSU’s Office of General Counsel.

While BSU received 118 public records requests in 2017, Heninger estimated only two or three were onerous enough to incur a fee. She said she doesn’t recall a request exceeding $100 in several years.

Despite the UI Office of General Counsel sending an initial estimate of $191.13 to begin gathering the records, UI Communication and Media Relations was able to provide the information for free after several days.

According to that information, the UI received 101 records requests in 2017, charging for 16 – 14 of which exceeded $100.

UI Director of Communications Jodi Walker said three requests received an estimate of more than $1,500. The Daily News was unable to obtain details on the requests, but one carried an estimate of $2,667.20.

ISU Associate General Counsel James Francel said his office received between 40 and 50 requests in 2017 and no more than three incurred a cost. He said only one – a request for more than nine months of emails between university higher-ups – exceeded $25. That request cost $50.

The UI has been known to charge for public records for several years, sometimes at seemingly excessive costs.

According to The Spokesman-Review, the UI sent an estimate of $89,717.80 for a request in 2015 seeking 10 years of emails, phone logs and other means of communication regarding a tenured professor. The request was later canceled.

Another requester that year was told it would cost an estimated $18,078.11 for public records regarding controversial murals at the university.

The Daily News was given a $1,080 estimate for records regarding thefts at the UI bookstore involving Vandal football players in 2015, and a request to the UI for records regarding cat euthanizations on campus cost $350.93 for the university to begin gathering the records in 2016.

According to Idaho public records law, public institutions can charge for materials and personnel hours that are needed to furnish requests after a certain amount. The law states that the first 100 pages and two hours of labor must be free, but it is permissible to charge a fee – in advance if necessary – if the cost of labor and materials is expected to exceed that amount.

The UI Office of General Counsel estimated the records request sent for this story would take eight hours to fill – five hours for the gathering of documents ($30.79 per hour) and three hours for redaction ($32.92 per hour). The two free hours allowed by the state reduced the estimated cost of the records by $61.58, reducing the estimate of the request from $252.71.

The Office of General Counsel declined to comment to explain why the office assesses higher fees for records than offices at other universities.

In response to the UI’s higher costs, Walker said she can’t speak to other school processes and couldn’t say why the university charged more and more often for public records.

Walker noted documents sometimes require time-consuming analysis and redaction to remove personal information, such as private student data protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

She said while the UI’s goal is to be as transparent as possible, transparency halts when it comes to private personnel data or protected student records.

“We are a state institution, and we have an obligation to share what we’re doing with not only the media but other stakeholders,” Walker said.

Heninger said as a public entity funded by tax dollars, much of BSU’s activity is arguably the business of the public.

While there are mechanisms built into the Idaho Public Records Act that allow for institutions to charge a reasonable fee for excessive requests, Heninger said there is no requirement to assess fees.

“We aren’t obligated to charge, it’s just that if there’s a huge request that it does take a lot of time and labor and is a big expense to the university, then we have the ability to recoup the cost for that,” Heninger said. “We’re not obligated to, and so I think, in the spirit of the law, we make every effort not to.”

Across the state line, Washington State University does not charge for public records, despite a law change in July 2017 allowing the university to do so. Stephanie Horn, of WSU’s Public Records Office, said the university plans to incorporate the new law once it determines a fair policy to charge for such records.

From the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

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