At Idaho Education News, we adamantly believe the public shouldn’t have to pay for public records.
Especially when those records pertain to public spending.
But this time, we’ve decided to pay — reluctantly. And selectively.
As you might recall, we’ve been going back and forth with the University of Idaho for months on public records requests, and the U of I’s attempts to bill EdNews.
Bear in mind, the U of I doesn’t have to send us an invoice. State law allows public agencies to bill for labor costs exceeding two hours. But state agencies aren’t required to do this, and many don’t.
Here’s where we stand with the U of I:
Phoenix-related invoices. EdNews has asked the U of I for all invoices related to the proposed purchase of the University of Phoenix. On Jan. 10, the U of I said it would cost $88.65 just to compile these bills.
“Once you have paid the estimate and we have identified and gathered the responsive documents and better understand the volume of records that would need to be reviewed, we will be able to provide you with a further estimate for us to review the responsive records,” Karl Klein of the U of I’s office of general counsel wrote.
Emails to and from legislators. On Jan. 8, EdNews requested emails, texts and other written communications with legislators. We narrowed the request to the two agencies most likely to have newsworthy contact with elected lawmakers: President C. Scott Green’s office, and the office of government affairs. The U of I said it would need to review a whopping 1,374 “potentially responsive records,” at a cost of $815.01.
‘Project Neptune.’ Since November, we have been requesting emails, texts and other public records containing the words “Project Neptune,” a code name for Phoenix. When we requested records from four departments — Green’s office, the provost’s office, the office of general counsel and the division of finance and administration — we received a $2,370.95 invoice.
We narrowed this request to Green’s office, and received a $344.23 invoice. And that’s just the cost to “review all the emails to determine their size, including the number of pages of any attachments,” Klein wrote. Here again, the actual bill for the records could prove to be higher.
On Wednesday, EdNews paid $88.65 for the Phoenix-related invoices.
We still believe the emails and the “Project Neptune” documents are in the public interest. We continue to oppose the U of I’s billing practices — which delay and dissuade public records requests.
But we also don’t like the idea of walking away just because we’re hitting some resistance. That runs counter to the tenets of watchdog journalism: reporting that holds public agencies accountable to the public.
We believe the Phoenix invoices could give us — and give Idahoans — some insight into the behind-the-scenes costs of a proposed $685 million purchase. Even though U of I officials insist Phoenix will be a moneymaker, the public still has a right to follow the dollars. Their dollars. The public has a right to know who’s already making money on this transaction.
We’re committed to telling that story. Even if we have to spend some of our own money to chase it.
More reading: Click here for our in-depth coverage of the proposed Phoenix purchase.