City Collects $230k to Fulfill Thousands of Public Records Requests

The City of Reno in the past year charged citizens $230,000 in fees for government records. That amount includes charges by the Reno Fire Department, City of Reno, and Reno Police Department.

Reno City Clerk Ashley Turney
Reno City Clerk Ashley Turney

City Clerk Ashley Turney said that the amount is from March 2018 to present. The three city entities received more than 16,000 records requests during that time, most of which was to RPD, according to city records provided to ThisisReno.

“We take a loss on every single records request,” Turney explained. “Any time that’s spent on a public record is time not spent on another task. That $230,000 reflects more than 16,000 public records requests that were responded to.”

Turney said that insurance companies and attorneys are making the most requests and that the city’s goal is to fulfill records orders — many of which are voluminous — as quickly as possible. She said that she was not able to produce an accurate cost for staff time to fulfill the requests.

“That’s something we’re working on going forward,” she said. “The cost is considerably higher than [what we can show] because the idea is that, regardless of if the [public record] is six pages or 200 pages, the cost is the flat rate [of $.50 per page]. We generally default to the 50 cents per page, and that’s all that’s entered into the system is the cost that comes out, not the actual amount of time spent.”

Fees Criticized

The Nevada Public Records Manual indicates that government may only charge up to $.50 per page for “extraordinary use” of staff time and that “fees are not a revenue-generating operation of an agency.”

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Agencies can, however, recoup “the original cost of development or producing the records,” but should not charge requestors for “searching for or retrieving documents, unless otherwise allowed by statute.”

Further, governments should not be charging “staff time for complying with a public records request.”

The city’s fees, however, consider staff time.

Although Turney said the city defaults to a per-page fee, it is figuring in staff time as costs based on a cost-study analysis, which is why the Reno Police Department, possibly in violation of public records laws, charges so much for police reports — $45, Turney said.

“The Police Department has eight full-time people in Records, so eight full-time people is far more than $230,000 in funding,” she explained. “The cost is based off [a] cost-study analysis, which is showing what the actual cost is to produce the record. Mind you, that was two years ago, and we’ve just seen an increase in public records totals that have come in since then…”

The city’s system, Turney added, shows how much time staff spent in the system — not the amount of time it took the person to locate the records.

A recent request required staff to find an ordinance on microfiche, which took six hours. The charge to the requestor was $1 because the document was only two pages.

“The cost invoiced is a dollar,” Turney said. “The actual cost to the city is my office manager [working] six hours on microfiche. The true cost is what is invoiced.”

The city has been criticized for charging one of the highest amounts for public records of any municipality, according to the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think-tank that aggressively advocates for public records access.

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NPRI’s Robert Fellner said that a citizen complained after being told the cost for copies and emails about a City of Reno zoning issue would amount to $125.

“My focus was narrow and the information was not protected,” the complainant noted. “But it took many, many weeks for the City to finally fulfill my request. I was told it would cost $125 for copies of the requested emails.”

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve.
Reno Mayor
Hillary Schieve.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve told me that the city has a fee waiver for financial hardship, and she is pushing for the city to lower its public records fees.

On Twitter, a reader responded to Schieve’s tweet about copies offered free if people can’t afford them.

“Since when? When my car got stolen and the thief got a DUI in it, I needed a copy to give to my employer to clear up the fact that I didn’t get a DUI, but I couldn’t afford it, [and] no one offered it free. Made my life miserable for three months.”

City, County Violate Public Records Act While Opposing Changes to The Act

Both the City of Reno and Washoe County violated the Nevada Public Records Act in recent weeks after testifying in opposition to a proposal that would force more government accountability in following the act.

The law mandates governments respond within five business days, but both Washoe and Reno failed to respond to records requests within the five-day time period.

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One was a request filed by Fellner that was asking for data he said the city has provided in the past.

Turney confirmed that Fellner’s order went past the five-day mark.

“He was notified on business day six,” she admitted. “Part of the challenge there has been an internal change of responsibilities as far as the request that he had. [It] went to payroll. Payroll previously was under HR, and they had just been moved to finance and that information had not been relayed to my team.

“I have since had conversations with all of the department heads, and there’s been a change in our practice to make sure that I’m notified faster. Our goal is to try to get things done within five days.”

Washoe County also responded to a ThisisReno records order after the fifth business day.

Proposed changes to the act — supported by ThisisReno — are designed to make governments more accountable in fulfilling public records orders. Right now, there is little to no recourse for citizens if governments don’t abide by the act, aside from taking them to court.

“The goal is to eliminate the need for costly lawsuits and to simply have the government be fully transparent and accountable to the people it serves, which is what state law already requires,” said Las Vegas-based attorney Maggie McLetchie.

As for the quarter of a million dollars collected by the city, I asked if that money could go into helping with covering public records costs. Turney said she could not comment.

“I don’t get to allocate the budget,” she said. “I don’t get to speak on that, unfortunately.”

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Bob Conrad
About Bob Conrad 1068 Articles
Bob Conrad is co-founder of ThisisReno. He manages ThisisReno and Conrad Communications, LLC, his marketing communications consulting company. He also works part time for the University of Nevada, Reno.