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Ferguson Charges $2,000 for Press FOIA Requests

FERGUSON, Mo. (CN) - A growing number of media outlets claim that Ferguson, Mo. is charging way too much money - $2,000 or more - to respond to Freedom of Information Acts requests about the Michel Brown shooting.

St. Louis Public Radio has filed a formal complaint against Ferguson with the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

The radio station claims Ferguson wants more than $2,000 for the requested public records.

Chris McDaniel, on behalf of St. Louis Public Radio, wrote to Ferguson officials on Sept. 23, asking for certain records.

State law requires Ferguson to answer within three days.

McDaniel says Ferguson responded after eight days, saying it could not begin to retrieve the records until Oct. 10.

McDaniel claims on the station's website that Ferguson City Clerk Megan Asikainen told it that the city would not look for the records until the station paid $2,050.

And the $2,050 might not even cover it.

"The cost of this project may exceed the deposit amount," Asikainen wrote to McDaniel in a letter posted on the station's website.

"There is a tremendous amount of work involved with researching whether records exist which are responsive to your requests, analyzing the records, redacting the records as necessary, and any copying or duplication that will be needed. Additionally, the city attorney's assistance is required with regard to determining the extent to which certain information should be redacted."

According to Asikainen, Ferguson is outsourcing its open records responsibilities to a company called Acumen Consulting. Acumen is charging Ferguson a $500 base fee and a $135 hourly rate to search emails, according to McDaniel.

The high fees seem to fly in the face of Missouri's Sunshine Law, which states that copying fees for public records shall not exceed 10 cents a page, with the hourly fee for duplicating time not to exceed the average hourly rate of pay for government clerical staff.

Adam Marshall, the Jack Nelson legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he has never encountered such a high hourly rate for public records.

"To charge the media for this basic function is repugnant to the idea of self-governance," Marshall told St. Louis Public Radio. "We have seen a lot of public distrust and questions about how the City of Ferguson and the State of Missouri are responding to the events there, and part of that distrust, I have to imagine, is from a lack of information."

Last month, The Associated Press reported a similar bill from Ferguson. The AP declined to pay it.

The Washington Post said it was told that Ferguson wanted no less than $200 for its requests, and the website Buzzfeed said it was told that it would have to pay thousands of dollars for its request.

Rick Blum, who coordinates the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that advocate for open government, said the high fees are a popular tactic to deter FOIA requests.

"The first line of defense is to make the requester go away," Blum told the AP. "Charging exorbitant fees to simply cut-and-paste is a popular tactic."

Interest in Ferguson police records has been high since a Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown on Aug. 9. The shooting was followed by daily, sometimes violent, protests in Ferguson.

The protests have spread. On Saturday, protesters interrupted a concert at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis, and protesters were two Cardinals playoff games Monday and Tuesday, as the Cards eliminated the Dodgers.

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