The Joys of an Open Records Request in Georgia (Updated)

(Update follows.) I was poking around at the Department of Family and Community Services for grins and giggles last week. I made a records request. I asked for a record of payments made to Debbie Heard, wife of occasional troublemaker, current lawsuit defendant and former State Rep. John Heard, in her capacity as a volunteer member of a voting committee at the agency. They told me my request would cost $70 to fill. I asked them to justify the expense.

This was their response.

“Mr. Chidi,

Please note that this is an estimate. The records are maintained in two offsite storage units to which DFCS personnel will have to drive to and pull the records. They will have to locate the appropriate box for each payment. The information gathered from the storage units will have to be brought to the DFCS office, scanned, and then returned to the storage units. The estimated costs are broken down as follows: 1 hour driving to the storage units (2 round trips); four hours searching for/filing the records; and approximately one hour to make copies. The total was based on 6 hours of time, multiplied by $11.69–the hourly salary of the lowest paid full-time employee who has the necessary skill and training to perform the request. (See O.C.G.A. Sec. 50-18-71(c)(1)). As this is an estimate, the actual costs may vary. The time depends on how easy/difficult it is to locate the files, and it may also take less time to search. Nevertheless, our office will provide a breakdown of the actual costs in the invoice. DFCS has provided a reasonable, good-faith estimate.

This is the same process we use for all Open Records requests. As a member of the public, you have access to any public record that is not exempted from disclosure under the Act, or other state or federal law.

Please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you.

Shan Momin
Deputy General Counsel
Department of Human Services
(404) 651-6602

___

I know, I know. The state has cut the DFCS budget over the last five years, and it’s lost some federal funding. Times are tough, and there’s value in making sure costs are covered, even when people are looking for information for the public.

Still, never mind that it’s incredibly annoying that state agencies insist on presenting this kind of financial friction to keep ne’er-do-well journalists from poking around. What the hell kind of accounting system does DFCS use, that they can’t query Peoplesoft or its equivalent to figure out who has been getting paid how much for what? How much confidence should I have now that the agency has the appropriate accounting systems necessary to track what’s left of its budget?

 

___

(Update, July 19.) 

Shan Momin sent a follow-up note yesterday:

Good afternoon, Mr. Chidi,

I want to follow up with you on your request from July 12 under the Open Records Act for records of payments by DFCS made to Debbie Heard.  As previously mentioned in my email to you on 7/15, DFCS has records of these payments. The records include copies of invoices and checks.  However, in a subsequent email, you requested a general ledger of these payments.  Please be advised that DFCS does not maintain these payments as a line item on the general ledger.  Ravae Graham, with the DHS Office of Legislative Affairs and Communications, attempted to contact you on Tuesday, July 13 to explain what DFCS could provide to you and left you a voicemail.  In order to assist you in responding to your request for this information, DFCS has provided a list of the payments made to Debbie Heard. The list includes the vendor ID, vendor name, check number, check date, account (i.e., fund source), check amount, and a description field.  The fund source indicates from whom the payment is made—either from the State of Georgia or Gwinnett County.

Please confirm if you still want any of this information. There will be no charge for the list as the time to retrieve this information was approx. 15 minutes. See O.C.G.A. Sec. 50-18-71(c)(1).

23 comments

  1. TheEiger says:

    “I was poking around at the Department of Family and Community Services for grins and giggles last week.”

    Yeah, I want my tax dollars to pay for your “grins and giggles”. If you want something for the hell of it then pay for your self. What a joke.

  2. Scott65 says:

    Also, do to said budget cuts…the systems used by state agencies are antiquated, to put it mildly. I would be much happier knowing they are using their scarce resources protecting kids

  3. Noway says:

    George, don’t our taxes already pay for the clerks they describe to do your search? Why do they have to recharge you?

    • TheEiger says:

      No, that is not what our tax dollars are for. The Department of Family and Community Services is suppose to use their time and money to assist children and the elderly. Not to be sent on a wild goose chase by someone trying to make something out of nothing.

      • griftdrift says:

        I’m going to defend George a bit here. More stories start with someone’s curiousity leading them to look at reams of paper than meeting Deep Throat in a parking garage.

        Having said that, I think DHS complied with the law reasonably.

        Now some other agencies….well…..you should chat with Jim Walls some time.

        • Noway says:

          I’ll defend him, too. The clerks work there and as part of their job description is to respond to records requests. Is there no amount of documentation that can be delivered to a requestor of that material free of charge? Is it standard practice to charge the requestor an hourly rate for the work an already employed/paid clerk is doing? Do I need to send in a check to the clerk that sends me my water/electric bill or my tax assessment every year? After all, some clerk is busy working to print those out too.

          • griftdrift says:

            The law is pretty specific on what can be charged:

            “In addition, a reasonable charge may be collected for search, retrieval, and other direct administrative costs for complying with a request under this Code section. The hourly charge shall not exceed the salary of the lowest paid full-time employee who, in the discretion of the custodian of the records, has the necessary skill and training to perform the request; provided, however, that no charge shall be made for the first quarter hour.”

            However I think you can see the problem. The custodian has discretion on calculating the chage and this presents a spectrum of how it is used. It varies from greencrackers experiences in Augusta mentioned below to Jim Walls attempts with certain agencies where they use the code like a weapon to fend off inquiries.

            Problem is that’s pretty hard to fix. There has to be some discretion because there’s a big difference between asking your local clerk for a copy of the town’s waste contract and asked an agency with thousands of employees for a copy of their payroll from a few years ago.

            The best method to keep the system in line is to keep pressure on those who choose to use the letter of the law to obfuscate their duty. Once again, Walls is one of the best at this. And George too. Even though I think DHS acted within the letter of the law here, they only stay honest because people like George and Jim keep them honest.

    • Ellynn says:

      All governement agencies have to maintain and store public records. They have to be able to allow you to see the records. Technically they can charge you any “reasonable” cost. under state code. Every department is different in their ‘reasonable ‘ cost. Example; a certified death record is a standard $25.00. Doesn’t matter if the file is sitting on a desk across the hall and takes some one 5 mins to certify it and mail it out, or if they have to hunt down the orginal in a 1895 county record that is now currently located in a file in a archive 200 miles away, and the document was misfiled and took 3 days to find.

      Got to love red tape.

  4. saltycracker says:

    George,

    Suggest you remove this column and move on….but reading a stubborn defense of it will be entertaining too.

    • George Chidi says:

      Suggest I remove this column? Really? It isn’t enough that public curiosity into how money is spent by public agencies should be ignored, for you. Discussion about the little institutional resistances to inquiry should itself be suppressed. Your commitment to transparency is notable.

      Look. This isn’t the biggest of deals. I’m not accusing them of failing to follow the law.

      But I’ve decided to call people out in public from now on when the reasons for a charge for an open records request appear to be stupid to me, or reveal institutional dysfunction. The fact is that most agencies are still making it up as they go along when quoting a price after being asked for information.

      John Heard, you may recall, is tied up in a suit he calls “infuriating” over a bid for a land deal to house the DFCS facility in Gwinnett. Heard is accused of interposing himself on behalf of Brand Properties to land the lease for the new offices. Regardless of what you might think about the quality of the lawsuit, DFCS fired a guy for leaking one guy’s bid to Brand, and brand got the contract … before DFCS voided it. People don’t get fired at a drop of a hat at a government agency.

      A friend sent me a message through Facebook a few weeks ago, curious about how much Debbie Heard was earning from her volunteer position on the voting committee of the DFCS board. The fact that Debbie Heard is even on the committee somehow has eluded prior reporting on the topic. I assume she’s being paid a per-diem or something for attending meetings. I figured I could just ask her … or I could get the authoritative figure. Either way, the question to ask is how easily can she use her position at DFCS to front-run land deals for her husband and their business partners, or if that’s even happening?

      So there’s reason to look around and ask questions. Three months later, no follow-up in the press, so I took it on myself.

      A reporter has no power other than the pen. Often that’s not enough. But if I’m afraid to use it to call out people in authority for failing to be transparent … then I’m nothing more than a stenographer, writing pretty things that people in power want to be read, that everyone else is free to ignore.

      • George,
        DFCS and Dept of Public Health paid Deborah or Debora Barrett Heard $1,600 in 2011 and 2012. FY13 records won’t be online til December or so. For stuff like this, you can search here: http://www.open.georgia.gov/index.html. Email me and I can send you a spreadsheet with the info.

        DFCS’ parent agency, the Department of Community Health, currently wants to charge me $360 to search for emails etc. about a particular decision. Before I whittled down my request, they wanted $975. I need the emails because they decided somewhat arbitrarily that they wouldn’t answer my questions about that decision. I would be paying $20/hr. I’ve asked them to waive it. No response yet.

      • saltycracker says:

        George,

        Should public info be electronically available for no charge….yes.
        Should we expect public workers to data mine for us for free…no.

        Railing against the systemic issues….good……
        Expecting a freebee to further burden the bureaucracy…..nah…

        • saltycracker says:

          PS of course I care how public money is spent and sidetracking a public worker for “grins and giggles” is BS. I think the beureacratic wall is wrong but harming the intended public services is worse.

  5. Last spring, before the election, one of my blog contributors made an open records request for financial files from a false charity run inside the Walker County Sheriff’s Office. The request was ignored for several weeks, in violation of state law. After several requests, a partial set of records (omitting the bits we needed) was released. The contributor was never given any estimate of the time it would take or the amount of money it would cost to produce the records, but the records included a bill for $70.

    A second request for the omitted portions was also delayed weeks, finally put in the mail one day before the election. It too was not complete, but contained enough information to verify the theft and shady practices within the Sheriff’s “charity.” Unfortunately due to their illegal foot-dragging, we didn’t get the information until the Friday after the election.

    Messages to GA First Amendment Foundation and the State Attorney General both were wastes of time as neither organization cared to help an anonymous blog.

    The reasons for us being anonymous were made clear when a Sheriff’s Deputy involved in the false charity made Facebook posts naming our contributor (the one who made the OR request) and invited members of the community to attack him.. Fortunately he no longer lives in the area, otherwise it could have become dangerous.

    Here are two posts about the false charity and our attempts to get financial records:

    http://www.cityoflafayettega.com/2012/07/stocking-full-of-guns/
    http://www.cityoflafayettega.com/2012/08/gift-to-sheriff/

    — LU

  6. Three Jack says:

    If government needs more money to update technology, then maybe it is time for government to end the practice of being a jobs program. Get rid of the ‘non-essential’ workers then use the money saved to update technology.

  7. Al Gray says:

    Augusta has more issues that can be imagined, but their response is first-rate, prompt and pertinent. They treat Open Records Requests with the utmost-seriousness, especially from the Augusta Today and Augusta Watchdogs FB groups, with their City Stink blog.

    Columbia County is even better. Rarely does that county even charge for the records, although they recently charged me $66.35, but the content is very HOT.

    Lincoln County is very prompt and open, as well.

    Last summer I sent a request to the Department of Community Affairs and got a tremendous degree of cooperation and personal attention.

    Overall, I have to say that the process is pretty good, even when the authorities have to be cringing when folks over this way come looking.

  8. greencracker says:

    Fun Fact: if a company has a government contract, records on that are open too.

    I just found that out (Thanks Jim!) and I’ve got a GORA out to a private company. Let’s see how their answering compares to a government agency.

    Oh and re: Deep Throats — yea, you get more stories over GORAs than Deep Throats. And a lot of the time, people who want to whisper at you anonymously just want to slip their agenda in the paper but not have to sign their name to it. Like, they want you to write “The senator is a lying jerk who doesn’t pay his taxes and kicks puppies,” said a source familiar with the situation.

    Yea. You don’t get anonymity for that.

    • Mike Stucka says:

      Yeah, in theory, some contracts are open. I believe there’s still a standard about whether they’re performing a public service or function. Privatize a government service, great. A company supplying floor cleaner? I don’t know know they’d be open.

      And actually getting them to admit compliance is, er, interesting. Your mileage may vary. 😛

  9. cheapseats says:

    I’ve got no problem with government agencies charging reasonable fees to comply with these kinds of requests and I think they should charge in advance.

    We have a couple of local “government watchdogs” around here who have been known to demand hundreds of pages of documents (as is their right) and then never bother to even come and pick them up! These “heroes” are constantly railing about the high cost of government but they have no qualms about creating lots of hours of wasted staff time and equipment costs to satisfy their curiosity until they lose interest in the issue and find another shiny windmill.

    Do their tax dollars pay for this? Sure. But, so do mine and I want the costs recovered.

  10. greencracker says:

    Let me get on my high horse here …
    OK:
    Governments like the UK and US feds are beginning to embrace “open data:” throwing datasets open to the public, in easily downloadable, machine-readable (.csv, .xls, etc) formats.

    There are two reasons why:
    1. People can find useful things in data that the government might not have the time, curiosity, interest or technical know-how to find.
    2. Taxes pay for data-gathering so said data defacto belongs to the public.

    Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, is a big UK proponent:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/jan/20/tim-berners-lee-free-data

    Our data.gov rolls out federal data and showcases the apps & whatnot that citizens have made with the data:
    http://www.data.gov

    I had a Ga agency open records officer say to me, “Man, we’ve been getting so many GORAs lately, it’s hard to keep up.”

    Put that stuff online in the first place and you cut your workload, my friend.

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