The City of Douglas last week charged the Douglas Budget $37.60 for a copy of City Administrator Jonathan Teichert’s contract, a public document. Later, the newspaper was ironically charged $27.10 for a copy of the 2015 resolution that sets the fee structure for public documents and research cost.
Budget News Editor Cinthia Stimson formally requested the contract via email from City Clerk Chaz Schumacher March 5. Stimson then received a city “Public Records Request Form,” in which she had to state her company affiliation, contact details and why she wanted the information.
Upon learning Stimson was being charged for a public document, Douglas Budget Publisher Matt Adelman requested the resolution, at which point he was charged to obtain a copy, which arrived 24 hours after he paid the fees.
The resolution setting the public documents and retrieval charge was passed in 2015, however Adelman, who’s been publisher of the Budget since 1994, said, to his knowledge, no public entity in Converse County has ever charged for public documents until now.
Considering this was the first time the Budget’s been charged for public documents, Adelman suspects there’s a connection to the charge and recent articles on city administration’s rate change proposal.
“If not, it’s a very interesting coincidence,” he said.
The budget paid for Teichert’s contract and the resolution March 11 and requested it be delivered within 24 hours.
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, five days after Adelman paid the fees, the Budget was emailed Teichert’s 2018-2020 contract and addendum, but not his 2020-21 contract.
Mayor Rene Kemper said she was aware the city could charge for public documents, but wasn’t familiar with the resolution set in 2015, as she wasn’t on the council then.
“I know some cities get inundated for requests and it takes a lot of staff time,” she said.
However Kemper said she wasn’t familiar enough with the situation to make a statement on the Budget’s $37.60 and $27.10 fees for public documents.
When asked about Teichert’s contract, Kemper said she knew it was on the city’s website in a council agenda packet. She said no changes were made to Teichert’s contract in 2020, that it was extended from the 2019.
Meanwhile, the Budget’s attorney, Bruce Moats of Cheyenne, sent a letter to city officials March 12 in which he outlined several of what he calls “flaws” in the city’s public records policy:
“It was adopted by resolution rather than ordinance, It allows charges for search and retrieval fees for printed records. It allows the city to collect more than actual costs and the city cannot require (a) public records form and cannot require users to state why they want the records.”
Moats cited state law or Supreme Court cases for each of the “flaws” he pointed out.
Regarding Moats’ flaw of the city collecting more than actual costs, Adelman, who also runs the Douglas Business Center, which often makes prints and photo copies, said the city’s charges were absurdly high even for a retail establishment.
“A photo copy at a commercial place,” Adelman said, “such as the Douglas Business Center, for a single copy is 25 cents, and that includes labor.”
The city charges $1 per page for copies or emails of documents under its fee structure, in addition to the $25 research fee minimum and sales tax.
Council member Ron McNare said he wasn’t aware that the city charged for public documents and doesn’t know why they do now. However, he commented that he had to look into the city’s policy before he’d have a specific opinion on it.
But regarding the form asking who you are and why you wanted public documents, McNare said, “It shouldn’t make a difference who you are. If you ask for a public document, they should give it to you.”
Council member John Bartling, who was out of town this week, said he hadn’t seen Moats’ email yet, but that he didn’t understand why the charge for Teichert’s contract was so high.
Council member Monty Gilbreath also said he hadn’t yet seen the document from Moats and didn’t want to comment until he and the rest of the council could discuss it.
Council member Kim Pexton did not answer a phone call or return a voice mail left by the Budget.
Kemper said the council will discuss Moats’ document and the city policy in their work session on March 25.
There was no mention of potential litigation in Moat’ letter, but Adelman did not rule out the possibility depending on what happens next and whether the charge is being applied to everyone or just the Budget.
“If it’s only targeted at us,” he said, “then it’s a violation of the First Amendment. And we’ll definitely sue over the violation of our constitutional rights.”
However, if it is being applied to every citizen who asks for a public document from the city, Adelman suggested that may even be a bigger problem.
“If we do sue, it is not on our behalf, it is on the public’s behalf. We’d be suing to make sure that the public is protected and that the public has (unfettered access to) public documents.”