NEW PORT RICHEY — Jeff Sutton saw countless public records requests go through City Hall during his 26 years as human resources director.
They were usually filled at little cost or no cost. So he was shocked when his request this year for copies of City Manager John Schneiger's e-mails came out to $850, plus $3 for a CD.
Sutton, who retired in July 2010, said he had heard rumors that Schneiger had been telling people he had been fired, so he wanted to review the city manager's e-mails.
The city told him it would take 35 hours of staff time to review and redact personal and confidential information before releasing the e-mails. Officials later cut the tab to $427 because it took so long to fill the request — which came as little solace for Sutton.
"I was appalled they wanted to charge me more than $400 for a public records request," he said. "I worked at City Hall for 26 years and never saw them once charge for an e-mail."
But times have changed. City Attorney Mike Davis said the broad nature of requests like Sutton's have caused clerks and technology specialists to spend hours upon hours reviewing e-mails for confidential material.
After the city received several major public records requests, Davis drafted a resolution setting a fee schedule. The City Council passed it unanimously Aug. 16, putting it into immediate effect.
Such resolutions are common for local governments across Florida, Davis said, and are recommended by the state Attorney General's office to give the public clarity on what costs to expect.
Some of the city's fees are outlined by state law, such as copies at 15 cents per page, or a certified copy of a public record at $1; while others are set based on the city's costs, such as $5 for an audio tape, $5 for a DVD of electronic or audio records, and $10 for a CD with imaged documents such as building plans or permits.
The third section of the resolution is where costs go up for public records requests if the city deems them extensive. "Special service" charges kick in if a request takes more than 15 minutes to be filled, according to the resolution. And the person making the request will pay the hourly salary of the employee doing the research, which will begin after the first 15 minutes.
Residents will also now be required to put down a minimum $25 deposit if the city estimates it will take more than an hour to fill a request. The "deposit will be adjusted depending on the volume of records/research requested," the resolution reads.
Local governments should set fee scales to let the public know the costs up front, but they should be fair, according to Barbara Petersen, a lawyer and president of Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open government.
Petersen said governments normally allow 30 minutes before the hourly rate for workers kicks in. Davis said there is case law that says 15 minutes is also reasonable.
State law also mandates that citizens be charged the lowest possible hourly pay rate of an employee that can complete the job, Petersen said.
For example, the foundation recently made a request to see Gov. Rick Scott's e-mails, and received a bill for $788 for a week's worth of work. But the foundation was charged the hourly rate of the governor's communications director, who makes more than $70 an hour with salary and benefits, Petersen said.
That price didn't sit well with the foundation, which complained to the governor's office. The administration changed its policy, and now public records are provided based on the lowest clerk's hourly rate of about $15 an hour. Under the new policy, the foundation would have likely paid less than $200 on its $788 request, according to Petersen.
Peterson also bristles at the amounts that some governments charge for materials such as CDs, for which citizens are only supposed to be paying the exact amount of what a government entity paid for it.
Overcharging is "very commonplace, and they are going do it all the time, unless someone makes a fuss about it," she said. "If a city is really paying $5 for a CD, then they should be going to Sam's Club."
Records show that in April 2010, New Port Richey paid $1.16 per CD for an order of unknown quantity, according to finance officials. Acting City Clerk Doreen Summers said the cost of the time spent researching and putting information on a CD is part of the $5 cost.
Sutton hasn't yet paid for his request, which came before the council passed the new fee schedule. He sees the fees as an attempt to discourage public records requests.
"Obviously it is. What other reason would there be? They used to be free of charge to anybody that wanted them," Sutton said.
Davis said the fee schedule is only a means for the city to protect itself from losing money on costly public records projects.
"That's certainly not the intent," Davis said of the possibility of discouraging records requests. "But if somebody makes a broad request that is going to take hundreds of hours to fill, they should have to pay for it."