In Ferguson, Missouri, where officials are accused of using the police force to raise money through fines and court fees, there is another financial matter raising questions. The municipal clerk’s office sought thousands of dollars from news organizations and members of the public before filling open-records requests in violation of state law, the Associated Press reported Monday. City officials said they had received thousands of requests following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer last year.
Several media outlets, including the AP, CNN, St. Louis Public Radio and the Radio Television Digital News Association, have filed complaints with the Missouri attorney general claiming Ferguson was in violation of the state’s Sunshine Law for seeking down payments of $2,000 to fill the requests. Requests that sought crime investigation reports, emails and other internal documents also came from bloggers, civil rights groups, legal defense organizations and ordinary citizens, the AP reported.
Ferguson City Attorney Stephanie Karr said the city clerk's office had collected about 3,000 pages of open-records requests by October, two months after Brown’s death. The town is accustomed to receiving only a couple of requests per month and became overwhelmed with the manpower required to handle the volume, Karr said. But she added down payment requests were rare -- one request for retrieval of 50,000 official emails would have required hiring an information technology consulting firm, at a cost of $135 per hour and a $500 base fee.
"I'm sure being in this kind of a spotlight can seem overwhelming to them," Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney and Sunshine Law expert, told the AP. "The public has a right to ask questions about how its government works, and it's in Ferguson's best interest to be as transparent as it can."
The state Sunshine Law stipulates that public entities can charge the “actual cost” of research time and the computer programming needs associated with the open-records requests. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster hasn't determined whether Ferguson's charges are reasonable. Patricia Churchill, chief counsel in the state Office of Governmental Affairs, said the charges for voluminous requests can be “more than you might expect.”
The requests initially came in after Brown, who was unarmed and black, was shot by a white, then-city police Officer Darren Wilson Aug. 9. A decision not to charge Wilson in Brown’s death sparked nationwide protests, as well as an investigation of police conduct by the U.S. Department of Justice, which also declined to charge the officer. The DOJ report, which implicated city officials in a racially discriminatory scheme to raise funds through unfair law enforcement practices against the city’s mostly black residents, sparked many more records request.