If we want to know the truth about what took place at Peet Junior High this year, and how it took place, it’s going to cost us. That’s the message being sent by the Cedar Falls School District.
The Iowa Standard was all over the event that took place at Peet Junior High in Cedar Falls earlier this year. In trying to piece together the parts of this complicated puzzle, it became obvious that the school district, principal and parents who helped put on the event did not have stories that lined up.
You can read about the event and see video of what happened when a parent confronted Iowa Sen. Eric Giddens and his wife, Kendra Wohlert, here. This article discusses whether Giddens, a former Cedar Falls School Board member, knowingly violated district policy. In this piece, Cedar Falls schools said Giddens and Wohlert did not receive permission to conduct political activity. Here we highlighted Giddens going out of his way to let everyone know the parent who challenged his event was a Waterloo police officer. And, of course, here we have Giddens’ statement.
Considering the amount of information that was not matching up, The Iowa Standard submitted an open records request with the Cedar Falls School District on Oct. 5.
On Oct. 21, the district responded that it had conducted the search and would charge $160.52.
“Please note, additional fees may apply due to legal time associated with such request,” the district said on Oct. 21.
On or about Nov. 1, Jacob Hall of The Iowa Standard left a voicemail for Denelle Gonnerman, CFO of Cedar Falls Schools, asking how she preferred payment.
On Nov. 4, Ms. Gonnerman responded The Iowa Standard could mail a check or pay with a credit card over the phone.
At 10:22 p.m. on Nov. 6, The Iowa Standard replied a check would be put in the mail tomorrow.
At 9:12 a.m. on Nov. 7, The Iowa Standard received the following message:
“Based on the amount of data located per the criteria provided within your original request, the approximate legal expense to review for confidentiality could be over $2,000 and will be passed on to you the requester. We have collected three CDs of email communication based on your original request and each CD holds approximately 12,000 emails.”
Again, on Oct. 21, a total of $160.52 was requested for conducting the search. More than two weeks passed without ever hearing about legal fee charges. It wasn’t until The Iowa Standard agreed to pay the $160.52 that an amount for legal fees was ever provided.
When pressed on the breakdown of the legal fees, the response was that a legal assistant would do the bulk of the work at $125/hour. The legal assistant would narrow down the large volume of documents down to relevant documents with any concern of confidential information. Then, an associate attorney would review the relevant documents to mark for redaction or removal from the disclosure. The associate attorney’s rate is $190/hour. Finally, the attorney would review any documents others may have questions about. That rate would be at $275/hour.
Earlier in 2019, when the Iowa Supreme Court conducted a legal review of documents requested by The Iowa Standard, the legal review was done at a cost of $46.50/hour.
Considering the incredible cost for the attorney working with the Cedar Falls School District, The Iowa Standard tightened up the search. Rather than a search that yielded more than 30,000 results, the search resulted in about 6,000 emails.
After previously being told the legal review on over 30,000 documents would cost $2,000, the legal review on these 6,000 documents was estimated to be $1,000.
The Iowa Standard reached out to the Iowa Public Information Board as well as Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
“What you are seeing firsthand is how government uses its ability to set the cost of records where ever it wants as a way of discouraging reporters and the general public from requesting records,” Evans said. “Especially if those records get into a topic that government prefers that you not dig into.”
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, Evans said, views the public records laws in Iowa as poorly written. when it comes to the cost of records.
“I’ve seen government entities provide records like you are requesting for $40 or $50,” he said. “And I’ve seen the price for records reaching into five figures.”
Evans said the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office said in August of 2018 that government should not charge for the cost of attorney review of records, and the cost for photo copies should be just a few pennies per page.
A 2017 court ruling in Missouri found that Missouri public records laws do not allow government agencies to charge fees for the time they spend reviewing public records and blacking out information before turning them over.
Evans said this situation is yet another reminder of the need for the Iowa legislature to address this issue.
“The Iowa FOI Council believes the cost of records is the No. 1 obstacle to ready public access to government records, and we have begun to build the case with lawmakers that they need to address this head-on,” Evans said. “The public records law allows government to charge for its attorneys’ time when few other government duties have similar provisions. For example, if you apply for a zoning change for property you own, you might have to pay a $10 or $20 filing fee, but you are not going to get socked with having to pay the city attorney hundreds or thousands of dollars to have him or her review your zoning change request.”
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“This is something that I’ve been working on for months,” said Jacob Hall, editor of The Iowa Standard. “It is frustrating to learn the amount of these costs only after agreeing to pay the initial $160.52 bill. We did request that fees for these records be waived, because we believe this information is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of what happened at Peet Junior High and how it happened. This story gained significant interest from the Cedar Falls community as well as the state.”
The Iowa Standard will follow up with the Public Information Board and weigh all the options it has for legal recourse.
“I believe that the Cedar Falls District is creating a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to public records,” Hall said. “An abuse of process and the inconsistent rate of legal fees is proof of that.”