New Fees Would Make Public Oversight Costlier

Anthony Arevalos

New Fees Would Make Public Oversight Costlier

Three examples of how data that we’ve used for stories would get more expensive under Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plan.

 

The City Council is scheduled to address three proposals Monday that would charge the public more money for information about the inner workings of city government.

Today, city officials often provide computer data and scanned documents for free. Some charge 20 cents per page for paper copies while others charge 25 cents.

Under Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposals, the city would start charging 70 cents per minute for copying data and 25 cents per page for scanning documents. All paper copies would cost 25 cents per page, too.

The mayor argues each fee aims to recover the cost of staff time. By law, the city must provide copies of certain information — whether held in a computer or written on a piece of paper — upon request from any member of the public.

Public records serve a crucial role in government oversight. Attorneys, news media and other watchdogs rely on them daily to report what’s happening in government and to hold elected leaders like Sanders accountable. When officials refuse to talk, records can illuminate why.

Sanders’ proposals would include a few exceptions. The data fee would only apply if the city must write new computer programs to copy records. The scanning fee would only apply if the charge exceeds $5, and the city wouldn’t charge for records that are already saved as PDFs.

The proposed fees would add costs and possible delays to public scrutiny of government activities, especially when information is kept a data format. The charge for copying data would greatly depend on the city’s own competence.

Public agencies often store data in formats that make information difficult to copy and share. Under Sanders’ proposal, these inefficiencies would allow the city to charge more for information. The more difficult information is to copy, the more the public would be charged.

This isn’t an abstract concept. Public agencies across the state have told Voice of San Diego that copies of data would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Though we have a modest budget for these types of expenses, we’ve declined to pursue data because of the cost in the past.

So what does this mean for the Average Joe? Below, I’ve summarized three of my own investigations in recent years that would’ve been more costly to produce under Sanders’ proposal. Exactly how much is unclear because city officials did not say how long they worked on copying the records. We received the data behind each story for little or no cost.

If an Average Joe wanted to pursue any of the public accountability stories below, it would likely cost them hundreds of dollars under Sanders’ proposal.

1. The City’s False Pothole Pledge | Published Nov. 30, 2009

For years, streets officials claimed that 100 percent of all potholes were being repaired within 72 hours of citizen complaints. We asked streets officials for pothole repair data and found the claims were far from accurate.

Our analysis of the data showed the average citizen waited much longer than three days for pothole repairs, and many waited more than two weeks. It took an average of 16 days for crews to make their first street-level assessment of potholes.

2. How a Bad Cop Evaded Detection | Published Dec. 15, 2011

Long before it came out that former San Diego police officer Anthony Arevalos was soliciting sexual bribes from women during traffic stops, he had a reputation in the Police Department for targeting female drivers. Colleagues dubbed him “the Las Colinas transport unit.”

And the data backed it up. We compiled arrest data from San Diego police and revealed that Arevalos had been arresting an unusually high rate of women compared to his peers. Police were unaware of the trend until we brought it to their attention. Police said they didn’t regularly track that information.

Prosecutors later pushed for introducing our findings as evidence in Arevalos’ criminal trial, arguing it illustrated a predatory behavior. However, the judge in the case decided it was irrelevant unless Arevalos’ personal character became a bigger issue in the trial.

3. Hundreds of Kids Arrested on an Unproven Hunch | Published March 11, 2012

San Diego police have arrested hundreds of more kids in recent years through the expanded use of curfew sweeps. Though police had never conducted a full analysis of their program’s effectiveness, they claimed it had been responsible for declining juvenile crime.

We analyzed five years of crime data and found the connection isn’t as clear as police claim. While crime has fallen in neighborhoods where police conduct the sweeps, it has also fallen more dramatically in areas without them. We also reported details about when crime happens and the city’s unique push.

Our analysis spurred a passionate community discussion about the value of the sweeps and it’s continued to resonate across many neighborhoods in the city, including City Heights and Mira Mesa.

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One subplot I’m still exploring: Part of the proposed fee for copying data appears to fall outside the fees allowed under state laws. The law says fees must “be limited to the direct cost” of copying electronic records.

But to calculate the data fee, city officials included both direct costs like labor as well as indirect costs like overhead. I contacted the mayor’s office Thursday and asked for clarification on this issue, but an official did not respond by story deadline.

Excluding indirect costs, the fee would drop to from 70 cents per minute to about 60.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

 

 

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