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District says records request cost $17K
By: GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent, Staff Writer
Was a reported $17,165.12 taxpayer expense to meet one resident’s open records request for 10,201 pages of school district documents necessary?
The question was raised and debated during Monday night’s Ephrata Area School Board meeting. And the question remains unanswered as The Review learned Wednesday that the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records cannot comment on the case.
"We cannot comment," said Nathan Byerly, deputy director of the office. "We’re going to be the adjudicator if he appeals to us, so we cannot issue any statement on this particular case."
Regarding whether or not the requester should be aware of costs before requests are fulfilled, Byerly said, "We do encourage the parties to communicate during the request process, thus resolving any confusion."
Stephanie Gingrich, the school district’s public relations coordinator, said Wednesday the district did not relay the cost of the request.
"No, it was not," she said, add"No, it was not," she said, adding that the full extent of costs are just estimates at this point.
"Copies have not been made of the e-mails," she said. "They are in an electronic file. They would need to be printed and have the information redacted. The cost up to this point did not include the actual printing of the e-mails and redacting of the information of the e-mails."
When asked why there was not more communication between the district and the requester, Gingrich said, "Even now the district only has an estimate of what the work would cost because the e-mails have not been printed and information redacted… Preliminary work has been done, but there may be additional e-mails that would be included."
However, at Monday’s meeting a specific cost to the taxpayer was discussed in an open forum. Now, the question remains, what is the actual cost to this point and what will it be if and when the full request is completed?
During Monday night’s school board meeting several board members commented on the July 26 request of resident Brian Hoffman for disclosure of e-mails from eight persons including District Superintendent Dr. Gerald Rosati, members of the district administration and members of the school board from April 30 to July 26, 2011.
The request ended up resulting in more than 10,000 pages of documents detailing e-mails sent and received from school district computers.
The district said in order for it to be able to effectively respond, that data needed to first be pulled. It then became clear that each page of data would need to be printed and reviewed by district legal counsel with regard to what information was legally protected and needed to be redacted in order to protect the privacy of others, in accordance with the Right-to-Know law.
The school district said, during the meeting, the cost of dedicating school district personnel to pulling the data, printing, reviewing and redacting private information is $9,027. An additional $8,138 in legal fees was spent reviewing each document as well as defending the district when Hoffman took his case to the Pennsylvania Open Records Office, for a grand total of $17,165.12.
It had been reported in an Oct. 5 Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era article that the state’s open records office became involved in the matter when Hoffman alleged the district did not respond to his request in the required time period — a charge the district solicitor denied.
Susan Friedman, the school district’s solicitor, had also stated at the time, according to the Intel article, that the documents Hoffman requested would be legally redacted of information deemed private or not subject to release to the public. For that reason, the electronic documents he requested would have to be printed.
Hoffman had stated in that article that he could seek the requested documents in smaller batches or "drop the matter altogether." He said he sought district e-mails to look for improprieties in district operations he alleges he has uncovered in the past with previous document requests.
Ephrata School Board President Tim Stayer had previously asked Dr. Rosati to provide specifics on the number of hours spent addressing records requests and the financial impact on the district.
School board president Timothy Stayer, in a telephone interview on Tuesday, emphasized that for the district to just simply respond to Hoffman’s request would have incurred these costs regardless of whether Hoffman ever carried through on his end of the request.
"Either way, we had an obligation to collect the information requested," stated Stayer. "Once the request came in, the school district then had the obligation to respond. My guess is that neither side thought the request would involve over 10,000 copies."
Stayer explained that the labor costs involve combing through countless e-mails, pulling back deleted e-mails, finding e-mails and determining which were relevant and which were not. All that was prior to any legal review.
Hoffman was reached Tuesday for his reaction to Monday’s meeting.
"$17,165 is a large number," agreed Hoffman. "I don’t know how copying e-mails from computers could cost that much. The employee’s employed to download these e-mails are already being paid by taxpayers. The $8,130 of legal fees might mean that our solicitor might simply be overpaid. Regardless, I don’t believe my prior Right-to-Know requests proved to be frivolous, absurd, or ridiculous.
"I believe I have made my point as to whether or not I feel my e-mail request was frivolous or not," Hoffman continued. "I have private commitments of approximately $1,000 so far. Maybe I will raise the total and maybe I won’t. Whether or not I pay for the e-mails, I hope that all board members will dig into them and take the time to figure out two things: first, are district computers being used appropriately; and second, did your superintendent and solicitor redact appropriately? Since I have not viewed these copied/redacted e-mails, I don’t know if I am being asked to pay for basically blacked out pieces of paper and whether the blacked out information is actually protected information under the RTK Act."
Hoffman said Tuesday night, that other than the copying expense, which would be passed along to him, he was not made aware of the costs to the district.
"The RTK officer, Dr. Rosati, the solicitor and the board president could have communicated their concerns about the costs and time associated with my request during the five days following my request on July 26. The fact that they choose not to communicate these concerns raises suspicion in my mind as to their intent."
Under the law, the district had five days to respond to Hoffman’s request, with a 30-day extension available if needed to complete the process of preparing a proper response. Hoffman said they did ask for the 30-day extension.
Stayer said that he was unsure of why Hoffman had made the request, adding that some of those on the school board felt that the request was largely of a nuisance in nature. He explained that Hoffman had indicated he was looking for any improprieties, but added that legally the district has an obligation that, with the exception of certain executive sessions regarding personnel matters, to meet publicly and be as transparent as possible.
"It is a good law," said Stayer of the Right- to-Know provisions. "Most are of a school operational nature. I have no idea and would prefer not to speculate why Hoffman may have not known how big the response would be."
This is not the first time that Hoffman has made Right-to-Know requests for information from the school district. Stayer noted that most past requests amounted to simple issues and small responses.
School board member Bob Miller was clearly outraged by the costs incurred by the Hoffman request.
"The Right-to-Know law was passed so that the media or concerned individuals could find out what government may be doing and spending," stated Miller. "In the big picture, this is a good thing, as openness and transparency is an important part of effective government."
Continuing, Miller stated that "In my opinion, when a citizen asks for thousands of e-mails from district employees and board members, for what appears to be the purpose of seeing what they can find, this is an inappropriate use of the Right-to-Know laws. Rather than attending to running the district, the superintendent had to waste his time on this frivolous request working with our attorneys and going through his e-mails. Rather than working on budgetary items for the district, and looking for ways to spend our money more wisely and save taxpayer dollars, the business manager wasted her time on this issue. Rather than working on compiling data on student achievement and running our computer networks, our entire computer department was held up for days working on this frivolous request. Rather than soliciting funds from the (Ephrata Education) Foundation, our educational foundation employee wasted her time on this. Rather than being productive board members to ensure our district is being run as well as possible, we wasted our volunteer time on this absurd request. And finally, and most importantly, taxpayer money was wasted on this frivolous request in paying our attorneys."
Council Member Jenny Miller was similarly outraged by cost of the Hoffman request.
"I used to think that charging 25 cents per copied page of a public request for information was very expensive for the taxpayer," she said. "That is until recently when a request for thousands of e-mails was received. I didn’t realize how many hours were necessary to collect the e-mails and make sure no personal information is released when such a large request comes in. Even if the taxpayer pays for the copies, we won’t be able to recover our total costs to comply with the Right-to-Know request. My question to the taxpayer is: Was the gi-normous request necessary? If not, we spent unnecessary time, manpower and money when money is extremely scarce. I hope this kind of waste does not happen again."
"We just spent $17,000 for nothing," commented outraged council member Judy Beiler. "That was just money thrown out the window. I am a volunteer, as are the other members of this board. We spend countless hours volunteering. I am just amazed that this amount of funds were wasted to cover this."
According to the Open Records office, the law does not fully address perceived frivolous requests.
"There is no mechanism in there other than the Disruptive Requests provision," Byerly said, explaining that a citizen cannot ask for the same records over and over again, placing an unreasonable burden on the agency. "It’s a very fact sensitive determination." More SCHOOL BOARD, page A18