Valdosta State University is currently competing for the prize for one of the most expensive open records requests in regional history, stipulating that the university needs a full team of administrative assistants, records custodians, and legal affairs representatives to fill a simple request about a university employee.
The university, which is part of the University System of Georgia (USG), recently told a professor who filed an open records request that his documents would cost a mighty $7,032.30.
Dr. Myron Faircloth, a professor who also has a medical practice and works as a police officer, filed an open records request earlier this month after he became aware of some internal communication, discussion, and gossip regarding his reputation and personnel file. Faircloth requested to view or inspect any documents in the custody of the University which contained his name for the years, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Specifically, Faircloth was seeking any student or faculty complaints filed, any open or pending investigations, and discussion notes or corrective actions taken by management. While the request covered a little over 24 months, the subject was narrow.
Faircloth stipulated that his request went beyond paper documents to include “notes, correspondence, emails, texts, memoranda, video and audio recordings and voice messages,” and he was thorough in outlining specific topics that were relevant to the ORR, an action requested by the university upon the filing of the request.
Faircloth also requested the VSU’s document retention and record destruction policy for all university documents.
The request, which was filed on February 6 of this year, was acknowledged as received on February 9, but the University said more time was needed. An email from the Associate to the Provost, Honey Coppage:
“Mr. Faircloth – this is to acknowledge receipt of your request for information. In accordance with the Georgia Open Records Acts, I will provide you with a cost estimate no later than Wednesday, February 15, 2017, for item(sic) requested.”
The Georgia Open Records Act does allow for a request to be filled after the 3-day grace period, but the agency/entity must provide an expected date of production for the documents – which was not done – and a cost estimate at that time.
As promised, the cost estimate was provided and the amount was staggering.
While pricey, the $434.30 retrieval fee is not exorbitant, but the cost for redaction and legal review is concerning.
A whopping $4,066.80 in legal fees, paying an full-time salaried university attorney whose time is worth $67.78 per hour.
Faircloth has a clean personnel file, a document he did receive easily upon request, and has a nine year history of satisfactory evaluations. It is unclear what could possibly be in the documents and items that would require 80 hours of redaction (10 full business days) and 60 hours of legal review. The documents, after all, are about Dr. Faircloth himself.
Of course, the proposed fee does not include any copying costs, though Faircloth has since been advised to request any documents electronically to avoid such costs in the future.
What is most alarming is that the University requires the entire payment upfront without even knowing what types of documents, how many pages, if there is audio or video, or any other information about what Faircloth would be paying $7,000. The possibilities are endless – or they are nonexistent. It is unknown until the $7,000 is paid.
Though not required, in the interest of transparency, the university could have offered a more detailed list of items that may be available. The cost estimate email makes no mention of when Faircloth may expect records to be available for his retrieval, either.
The Georgia Open Records Act does provide for compensation of time by the lowest paid employee qualified to perform the duty necessary to fulfill the request, but $7,000 is grossly excessive. Further, the Open Records Act was enacted to ensure information is easily and without undue burdens available to the public. The cost provided in this estimate is not something most citizens have the ability to pay for documents.
As of February 22, three complaints had been filed with the state Attorney Generals’ office, but there has been no correspondence from the agency.