Public records price tag

HUMBOLDT – Jason Klocke couldn’t understand why the Humboldt City Council paid about $30,000 more than it apparently had to in order to get some streets in a new housing subdivision paved.

In trying to find out how the council reached its decision, the Humboldt man made what he felt was a simple request under the state’s open records laws for emails city officials sent and received about the issue.

That was in November. A month later, city officials told Klocke he could get the emails by paying a $150 fee. The City Council on Monday reaffirmed that decision, rejecting a compromise amount of $75 proposed by the office of the state citizens aide/ombudsman.

Klocke is refusing to pay. He said that by charging such a large fee, Humboldt officials are denying him his right to see public documents.

”They won’t let me look at or examine the records until I pay them $150,” he said. ”I think that’s an exorbitant amount to pay for public records.”

He compared the fee to now illegal poll taxes that people in some states once had to pay in order to vote.

”They’re charging me a fee to exercise my right to see public records,” Klocke said.

Humboldt Mayor Walter Jensen said the city is not trying to deny Klocke his right to see public documents.

The mayor said the $150 fee would reimburse the local government for the five hours City Administrator Aaron Burnett spent collecting the emails.

”If we didn’t charge for this everyone in the world would want to request information and the whole staff would be literally tied up doing nothing but public records requests,” Jensen said.

Klocke said he is asking the citizens aide/ombudsman office and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller to do something about the situation.

Jason Pulliam, an assistant ombudsman, explained how the staff in the office of the citizens aide/ombudsman developed the proposed $75 compromise fee.

”We determined that the $150 was reasonable, but what we faulted the city for was not doing a better job of notifying Mr. Klocke that they intended to charge such a fee,” he said.

”On an initial basis, they told Mr. Klocke that they intended to charge $1 per page as a copying fee and they didn’t indicate any other fee would be charged,” Pulliam added.

State Citizens Aide/Ombudsman Ruth H. Cooperrider said her office isn’t likely to attempt any more action on the issue of the fee.

”I do not believe we’re going to pursue that issue further” she said.

Cooperrider said she believes the state’s open records law needs to be clarified to better define what fees local governments can charge for copies of records and under what circumstances those charges can be levied.

”I think there is some lack of clarity,” she said.

Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for Attorney General Tom Miller, said the attorney general’s office has not received a complaint from Klocke.

Contract award leads to dispute

The current dispute over open records is rooted in a contract to build new streets in the Eagle Ridge addition. That’s a new housing area being developed off Elmhurst Avenue, on a bluff overlooking the Des Moines River.

The city sought bids from contractors to install storm sewers, sanitary sewers, water mains and streets. Burnett said the contractors could offer prices for paving the streets with asphalt or concrete.

Burnett and the staff of Schlotfeldt Engineering Co., of Fort Dodge, recommended that the council hire Wunsch Construction, of Greene, to do the work with concrete streets at a cost of $1,010,823.70.

A motion to award that contract was rejected by the council during its Aug. 5, 2012, meeting. The council then hired the same company to do the project with asphalt streets at a cost of $1,040,864.65.

Blacktop Service Co. of Humboldt, is the subcontractor that will do the asphalt work.

Jensen said the councilmembers opted for the asphalt street surface because ”they just wanted to have a local company.”

Klocke said representatives of Blacktop Service Co. ”packed the council chambers and basically cried to the City Council that they wanted the contract.”

He said he has no vested interest in the project and is not employed in the construction business. He added that he is not opposed to the new housing subdivision.

Klocke said city leaders have raised property taxes, increased water bills and sought state money to replace the Sumner Avenue Bridge on the grounds that the local government doesn’t have enough money, then paid more than what was necessary for the street work.

”They claim they’re broke, but then they over pay,” he said.

”The hypocrisy just struck me,” he added.

In November, Klocke requested official emails from July through October pertaining to the contract. He requested emails containing the words Blacktop Service Co., Eagle Ridge, Humboldt County Housing Development Corp. and Bank Iowa, which was handling project finances.

Burnett said he received Klocke’s request on Nov. 27, 2012.

Klocke said that 19 days after he filed his request, he received a reply from City Attorney Eric Eide informing him that the city would comply, but would charge a fee of $1 per page. Klocke said he requested that the fee be waived.

A series of correspondence between Klocke and city officials ensued. Burnett said he gave Klocke the final price of $150 on Dec. 19, 2012.

Burnett said the price reflects the cost of his time to review and retrieve between 800 and 1,000 emails that contained references to the subjects named in Klocke’s request. The charge, he said, reflects five hours of work at $30 per hour.

Klocke said he believes the fee is actually intended to discourage him or anyone else from asking for public records.

”They think they’re above the law,” he said.

”I still have not been able to look at the record,” Klocke said.

Burnett said the city had not previously charged for copies of records since he began working there in December 2010. He said past requests were for things like copies of City Council minutes. He said the scope of Klocke’s request resulted in a fee being charged.