Wisconsin Court Upholds Limits on Records Request Fees

If you have ever requested public records from a local jurisdiction such as a police department you have more than likely been asked to pay a small fee for the documents. Two years ago the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel requested two weeks’ worth of police reports from the City of Milwaukee. According to this blog post the city demanded thousands of dollars in unauthorized fees to compensate for employee time used up in processing the information request. The newspaper sued.

According to the blog post (written by the attorney representing the newspaper), the Wisconsin courts sided with the newspaper in arguing that statutory limits on document fees cannot be set aside by local jurisdictions even in extraordinary circumstances. This victory for transparency in government comes with a moral cost, however. The moral cost is the responsibility to use these information requests carefully and non-maliciously.

In states where laws like Wisconsin’s keep fees limited people could conceivably exercise civil protests by saddling local government offices with exorbitant information requests. The cities and counties may face thousands of dollars in unrecoverable expenses because they are required to comply with citizen requests and may not be allowed to seek due compensation for processing the more extensive and costly requests.

While most people are not interested in burdening their local governments with increased expenses, 2012 has proven to be the year of the protest movement. It may be that somewhere protesters are thinking of ways to burden local communities with additional costs. Some cities in California, for example, are struggling to pay for extra police services required to maintain public safety in the face of very active protest movements.