Editor’s Note:Read Civil Beat’s series on the cost of Hawaii’s public records here.
The arguably unreasonable cost to check up on where our governor has been traveling and what he’s been doing while he’s away was the final straw for us in the often frustrating pursuit of public information.
Here’s what happened:
On June 17, Civil Beat requested Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s travel records and related expenses dating back to the day he took office, Dec. 6, 2010.
We asked for records including itineraries for in-state and out-of-state travel, the purpose of the trip and who accompanied him, including his security detail. And, of course, any documents detailing costs and expenditures of public money in connection with the trips.
A week later, the governor’s office acknowledged it had received the request, even though the office got it the same day we sent it. Still, the law gives an agency 10 days to acknowledge a request.
Another week passed before we got the estimated bill — $1,016.
The breakdown of the cost to provide the public records: 6.5 hours to find the records and 47 hours to then review and “segregate” them, which means blacking out information the governor’s office believes should be kept confidential. Plus $71 to copy 1,420 pages at 5 cents per page.
In a July 23 letter, OIP staff attorney Lorna Aratani told us neither Hawaii statutes nor OIP rules allow a person to appeal or require OIP to review public records fees estimated by an agency.
Aratani didn’t just say you can’t appeal a cost estimate. She concluded our request was flawed — and she told the governor’s office that, too.
It turns out we had asked for “a list” of records. The governor’s office had interpreted that to be the records themselves, just as we had intended, and based its cost estimate accordingly.
But Aratani was stuck on the literal words — “a list.”
“OIP found an apparent error in the estimate of fees that the Office of the Governor provided to you since the estimated fees were calculated for processing 1,420 pages to prepare for disclosure when your request was only for a ‘list’ of records,” she said.
Still, she said, “given the great number of pages that may be responsive to your request,” the fee estimate was made in good faith, “had you requested disclosure of the travel records themselves.”
The governor’s office obviously didn’t misunderstand Civil Beat’s request, based on its estimate. Nonetheless, on July 22 we got a notice from Abercrombie’s staff saying the request couldn’t be granted after all because the agency does not maintain the records in that form — a list.
The governor’s office noted that its $1,016 estimate “reflected the charges applicable in order to build said list.”
The next day, July 23, we deleted the words “a list” from the original request and sent it back to the governor’s office. The process began all over.
The office received it that day. A week later, on Aug. 1, the office sent us a new notice. It would cost $1,016 to fulfill the request.
So what could possibly take 53.5 hours — more than a week — to pull together Abercrombie’s travel records for the previous 18 months? We asked for an itemized bill.
OIP rules say, “Upon written request, the agency shall provide an itemized bill of all fees assessed.”
But the governor’s office interprets that to mean after the documents are produced and paid for, not a breakdown of what’s involved in the estimate.
Amy Luke, executive assistant to Abercrombie’s chief of staff, said she’s unable to provide a breakdown of the cost.
It turns out the records are kept in packets, batched by month, and the packets are in binders. She said the estimate is based on a rough calculation of the number of pages per travel packet, and the number of packets and binders. She did not say how many packets and binders there are from the last 18 months.
So nearly four months after we initially asked for the governor’s travel records, all we have is a bill for $1,016 if we decide to get the records, a determination from OIP that it won’t be helping, and no real idea if the price we’re being asked to pay is legitimate.
Meanwhile, the governor is continuing his travels. As election season heats up, we’d like to follow along — at least on paper.