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The price of public information in Abington, Mass.

By Chazy Dowaliby, editor, The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., and The Enterprise of Brockton, Mass.

On the surface, it seemed like a simple request. The Enterprise (Brockton, Mass.) reporter Erin Shannon sent public information requests to seven community police departments asking for data on the number of motor vehicle stops by town police for 2010 and 2011. She also asked for the results of those stops: arrests, criminal complaints, civil complaints, warrants or verbal warnings and for the total collected in fines for that period, including what amount of those fines the town got to keep.

Five of the seven police departments responded electronically, with details as requested, within two weeks. A sixth asked that we pay pay a fee of $18.28 – 50 cents each for three pages of printed data, plus $16.78 for an hour of an employee’s time to gather the data which we could obtain in hard copy from their office.

And then there is the Abington Police Department and its chief, David Majenski.

Chief Majenski is not one to be overly forthcoming with information about anything. It’s been an ongoing issue for several years – one we have attempted to resolve with meetings, calls and letters.

In this instance, the chief responded in time and in writing. He and his records clerk estimated the cost for providing the data would be $15, 954. You read that number correctly – a few bucks shy of $16,000.

I then wrote back, explaining the response we had received from other municipalities and asked the chief to reconsider.

His answer: “I have reviewed your request and the response given from our Records Department.  While I agree that the costs associated with this request are rather large, please keep in mind that this requested public information is the most specific and labor intensive request that I have ever seen.  As noted in the response from the Records Department, this request will require the individual hand review 24 months of log entries which is estimated to be approximately 95,564 records. The records clerk further estimates approximately 30 seconds per entry to review, remove and document each of the entries. “

I tried one final time to clarify the request, and sent examples of reports from two other departments just to make sure we all understood what data was in question. That email remains unanswered.

The Enterprise has filed an appeal of the proposed charges with the supervisor of records for Massachusetts.  In that request, we raised the question of whether the chief is attempting to deny access to material that can and should be readily accessible to the public through imposition of exorbitant fees. While that office has acknowledged receipt of our documents, it could be months before we get a response.

Our story on the frequency and the results of traffic stops will be published in the next several weeks – with a prominent sidebar on the saga of the  missing Abington data.

 

 

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