Friday, October 7, 2011

Student sues Johnson County Community College over charges for documents

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2011 at 1:45 PM

JCCCs e-mails are the caviar and champagne of public documents.
  • JCCC's e-mails are the caviar and champagne of public documents.
How much do you figure it would it cost to obtain a day's worth of e-mails between two faculty members at Johnson County Community College? Oh, only about 10 grand. Seriously. The Campus Ledger, the JCCC student newspaper, reports that a former employee is suing over charges that the school hit him with when he requested the public records.

Marcus Clem asked the school for many documents and e-mails, including one day's worth of e-mails between two employees in the school's Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The school said they could fulfill the request if Clem would fork over a mere $9,745.96. Again, that is for the single day's e-mail exchange - about 20 messages - between two employees. Clem also requested seven months' worth of documents and e-mails, and the school estimated the costs would reach $47,426. It wasn't hard for Clem and the Student Press Law Center to call "bullshit" on the school and file a lawsuit.

JCCC president Terry Calaway told The Ledger that the school was acting in good faith on the request, but the e-mails are stored on backup tape, which somehow makes digging them up labor-intensive. "To suggest that there’s something in there that we’re trying to hide is just absolutely ridiculous and irresponsible,” he told the paper. He added: "The college takes it responsibility very seriously to have to respond to these open-records requests, and we do it to the best of our ability to collect the information." Well, he's right to say the school responded. But if it takes $10,000 to dig up 20 e-mails, he might want to shake up the public records department.

The school's executive vice president of administrative services, Joe Sopcich, sent the Student Press Law Center an itemized bill explaining the costs. But, as you can see below, it sheds little light on why the e-mails are so pricey. (KORA is the Kansas Open Records Act.)

JCCC_Bill.jpg

Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director, said in a press release that JCCC's charges are ridiculous. "Without knowing what's going on behind the scenes, one of two things is clear. Either the college is overcharging for these records, in hopes that the students will shut up and go away, or it's overcharging in hopes of turning the open-records act into a profit center," he said.

Clem told the school paper that he thinks the school is trying to hide something in the e-mails. JCCC denies that they have anything to hide, and that Clem is suing to be a pain in the ass because his mother was fired from a position at the school. From the paper:

"To be honest with you, my position without having looked at it is, I think it’s a personal vendetta with Marcus related to the college and his mother’s termination," Calaway said. "I don’t think it has anything to do with anything else. His court request was related to something different. Quite frankly, that’s been our experience with him over the last couple of years."

Even if that's the case, these prices are steep. But, LoMonte said on the SPLC website, this kind of pricing is becoming more common. "We're seeing this phenomenon all over the country, where agencies are ringing up these jackpot bills for records, and it seems like public watchdogs are being seen as an easy way for an agency in a budget crunch to turn a quick buck. Public records belong to the public, and there's not supposed to be a mark-up so that agencies can make a windfall profit by selling the public's own information back to us," he said.

That's a pretty sweet racket.

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