Sunday, September 07, 2014

FOIA: Kudos to The State for laying out the problems

The State newspaper, in conjunction with McClatchy's chain-wide news service, does a good job today of laying out the abuses of using "contract" workers in the construction industry.

But deserving of just as much of a kudos is the paper's sidebar, Getting records from Columbia Housing Authority is expensive, slow, that lays out how agencies do their best to make it hard to get information. In this case it was charging more than $1,400 for the records in which the Social Security numbers were redacted.

One thing that might have made this a bit stronger was taking the $1,075 for copying costs and dividing it by the number of pages (three boxes of records) to show how much the Columbia Housing Authority wanted per page. Since the authority also charged for workers' time, the only copying charge should have been for actual copying costs -- and anything over a nickel or, possibly, a dime (next thing, FOI the agency's copier contracts to see what it is paying) is suspect.

We need to do this more, every time we run up against this kind of thing. And we need to make sure it is framed in a way that says it is the public, not journalists, who are being cheated.

Also in the story is the state's refusal to release audits or much other information because of the legal opinion that federal law makes workers' comp info private. However, there are a string of state and federal court cases also saying in general that off-limits info can be redacted and the rest released. This is why I do hope to win the lottery so I can establish an FOI foundation that will have the primary mission of providing low-cost or free legal assistance so these cases can be litigated quickly and often. Without that, it's sort of like the chocolate candies in Candy Crush -- the dodges just keep proliferating until they take over.

Getting records from Columbia Housing Authority is expensive, slow
It wasn’t easy or cheap to find out how many companies classified workers as independent contractors on the controversial Village at River’s Edge project and another project financed with federal stimulus dollars.

After receiving a Freedom of Information Act request, the Columbia Housing Authority took more than four months to supply three boxes of records to The State newspaper. The authority also charged the newspaper $1,425 for the right to review the documents. The newspaper paid the amount under protest.

State law allows public bodies to waive fees for documents when the information sought is in the public interest, but the authority chose not to do so.

The authority said it had to copy payroll sheets so it could redact the Social Security numbers of workers. The authority’s bill included $1,075 for copying costs. The remainder of the cost was to pay for staff time to prepare the records, the authority said.

Neither the Housing Authority of the city of Charleston nor the State Housing Finance and Development Authority charged anything for records they supplied. Each responded to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request about a month after it was made.

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