Anyone looking to process a public records request better not be going through the Deer Valley Unified School District unless they’re ready to pay up. At least, that was the deal until earlier this week, when The Goldwater Institute, a think tank based out of Phoenix, decided to challenge the Deer Valley, AZ based school district over its pricing on public records requests.
The school district, which stated that the costs were to help offset the work hours it took to find, read, and process requested records, was charging a $10 deposit (which was refunded when the process was finished) to initiate the work along with another nearly $10 per hour charge (which the district kept as payment).
According to the Goldwater think tank, the district’s policies were in violation of Arizona public records laws. They’re likely right, as well; much public records legislation revolves around the idea that any documents comprising public records should be open to the public free of charge. The more hoops those seeking information have to jump through, some argue, the less likely they are to get to the end of the process and have access to the documents they’re looking for. In this way, the essential transparency of a public records system can be manipulated to make certain facts, figures, and document records more difficult to get to.
In the case of the school district, it’s unlikely that anything so sinister or intentional was at work, but instead they were probably just trying to limit the number of abusive public records requests. Unfortunately, placing a price tag on public records does limit access to those who can’t spare the money. This, in turn, can defeat the purpose of having records made ‘available to everyone’ in the first place.
In truth, the Deer Valley pay-to-access policy was relatively short lived, being first proposed by the district in February of this year. It would, they argued, help to streamline the process of working through records requests. Unfortunately, this premise may have been ill-thought out: Placing an hourly price tag on public records work doesn’t really encourage those processing the requests to work harder, it just passes the buck onto those looking for information.
Goldwater iterated as much when they sent a letter to the district in March, reminding the district of Arizona’s laws regarding public records and asking them to “bring their policies into compliance with those laws.”
In response, the district has just rolled back their policies and have issued refunds to those who paid the processing fees in the interim. While the district has not said exactly how they plan to move forward, it’s safe to say that pay-for-access won’t be in their plans. An alternative, perhaps, might include working to establish a government-backed budget for records requests through interactions with local councils and legislatures.
In their defense, a representative for the Deer Valley Unified School District said the office currently relies on just two part time workers to process the emails, which number in the hundreds of thousands per year, pertaining to public records requests. That said, the representative stated that the district wanted to make sure they were appropriately serving the public, and that the district had wasted no time amending its policies.