Attorney fees of more than $5,000 in a three-month period for reviewing records requested under state law sparked debate at the last Crestwood Board of Aldermen meeting.
City Administrator Mark Sime told aldermen the city had “an extraordinary amount of legal bills” for 2013, including $5,600 to $5,700 to review documents requested under the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Act, also called the Sunshine Law.
The city incurred those legal costs due to Sunshine Law requests in August, September and October, according to Sime.
“… The city needs to go through all of those and when that happens on multiple occasions, the costs add up,” he said. “And then once the city attorney reviews those and redacts them, then they also print them out then again, for us to give to the person making the records request …”
Of the additional costs incurred for Sunshine Law requests, former Ward 4 Alderman Steve Nieder asked Sime, “…That’s just legal costs only?”
Sime replied, “Legal costs only.”
Nieder said, “It doesn’t take into account the time that was spent by staff to pull them out, file them, et cetera, et cetera?”
Sime said, “That’s correct … Because of the state that our IT (Information Technology) Department was in, we were not able to do a quick or accurate pull or search of emails. So we didn’t feel that we could pass on any costs for that to the people making the records request …
“We didn’t charge that even though it took many hours for the staff to go through and pull out the appropriate emails or other records as well …”
When asked by Nieder if many people had sought records, Sime said the “biggest requests” were made by one person. Sunshine Law request forms obtained by the Call show former Ward 4 Alderman Deborah Beezley made multiple requests during the time period Sime mentioned. Some of the records requested by Beezley include:
A list of attorney’s fees for the past six months.
Times the city administrator has been out of the office from his start date until present.
Salaries for the city’s elected officials.
Letter offering the city administrator his position and any agreement specifications.
All emails to and from Mayor Jeff Schlink from January to August.
Local media outlets and other residents also made requests during that time period.
“… I hope we don’t have this in the future, and if we do, I hope we plan on charging that if it happens to be one person again …,” Nieder said.
City Clerk Tina Flowers, who serves as the city’s custodian of records, later told the board the city “typically does charge for records requests, especially something of that magnitude, but because there were significant deficiencies within the IT Department, as the custodian of records I was not comfortable charging anybody for those records.
“… It’s not for the city to get rich on records requests,” she said. “We try to make the information as available to the residents as possible … If it’s a significant amount of work that’s going to be placed on city staff, those individuals (making the request) will be charged. We very seldom have those types of things …”
Requesters can be charged up to 10 cents per page, according to Flowers. Any other additional costs to requesters would include staff time at a clerical rate and, for example, the cost of reproducing a set of public works plans, she said.
Sime said the plan is to work with the city’s new IT provider, Throttlenet, to set up a system that will store emails, which can then be searched and filed.
“… We have none in place right now for archiving, storage, search and filing of our email system,” he said. “So that will be a very simple task to go in and put in the parameters that we want to search for specific emails and pull them out and, at that point, we feel that we should be able to charge, but again … the cost is for a low-level staffer to do the work, not the people who are actually doing the work right now.”
Former Ward 3 Alderman Gregg Roby later questioned why it is an issue if a “tremendous amount of paperwork” was pulled, but the requester was not charged.
“That person’s entitled to that information. All of a sudden we want to single them out?” he said. “So is it going to be our intent now that any time someone comes up and files a request for Sunshine information that we’re going to reveal their name to whoever wants it? … If that’s the case, then I’d like to have a copy of Sunshine requests from everybody that’s requested something anytime in 2013 …”
Roby said that tells the public that if a person requests information from the city and “if somebody doesn’t like that, we’re going to reveal your name. And if we forget to charge you for (your request), then it’s going to be something that we’re going to make public and say, ‘Well, you cost us $5,000,’ and so now it becomes a big issue. I just think it’s wrong.”
However, Flowers later said she did not forget to charge the person who made the request resulting in the legal costs.
“As the custodian, if I’m aware that there’s some significant deficiencies within a department and somebody asks for a records request … I do not feel comfortable charging somebody,” she said. “I don’t think that that’s fair. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the individual that’s requesting them …”
Ward 1 Alderman Darryl Wallach agreed with Roby’s comments, saying, “… I think he’s right on. I’m concerned about that, so that may be something that we need to vote into an ordinance in the near future to address …”
Such a provision would protect “the integrity of the person” making a request for records, he added.
City Attorney Lisa Stump said, “… Any sort of ordinance that you would want to consider would have to still be consistent with the Sunshine Law …”
“… I just want to make sure from the city’s standpoint, the city attorney’s standpoint, again that’s something within Sunshine Law rights that we need to produce,” Wallach said.
But Stump said Sunshine Law request forms would have to be made available if requested by someone.
Ward 2 Alderman Tim Trueblood reminded the board that the cost being addressed was for attorney fees — “making sure that what is released to the public fits within the law. So we’re not punishing anybody … We’re incurring a legal cost because of this person’s request, which is well within their rights. They’re not required to pay the legal costs the city has to incur because of their requests. So I don’t understand what the problem is … It’s a legal cost issue that we’re dealing with.”