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Mass. writer asks a question, gets a bill

By Colman Herman, freelance writer, Dorchester Lower Mills, Mass.

Imagine this:

Reporter: Governor Patrick, what is the status of casino gambling in Massachusetts?

Patrick: I’d be pleased to answer your question, but first you have to give me a $100.

That exchange is fanciful. But I had an experience not unlike it when I made a public records request of the state Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), which oversees hundreds of millions of dollars annually in capital construction projects and more than 500 leases.

In my public records request, made  in January, I told DCAM I wanted to take a look at thirteen of these leases. I did not ask for copies.

Also, last December 21, I had asked DCAM two simple questions via email about a lease that I already had as a result of a previous public records request.

In mid-February, DCAM deputy general counsel Peter Wilson responded that the agency wanted $441 to let me look at the thirteen leases.

Now here’s the kicker: Wilson also stated, “This figure also reflects the staff resources required to respond to your request for information included in your December 21, 2010 email.”  In other words, DCAM wanted to charge for answering my two questions.

“My two questions do not involve my asking for any records,” I wrote to DCAM Commissioner David Perini.  ”DCAM can refuse to answer my questions, but it cannot charge me to answer them.  There is, in fact, no basis in law that allows DCAM to charge anyone for merely answering questions.”  I then asked DCAM to deduct the amount for answering my questions from the $441. But when I heard nothing back, I let DCAM know I planned to write about the dispute. And that prompted a response.

At the end of February,Wilson wrote to say the agency would deduct the amount imposed to answer my questions.  The new amount I am now being asked to pay is $294.  In other words, DCAM had intended to charge me $147 to answer my questions.

Left unstated was whether DCAM would now answer my two questions. When I inquired, I finally got the answers at no charge.

The fact remains, though, that if I weren’t so persistent, I would have had to shell out the $147. The fact remains too that I should not have to have gone through such an absurd rigmarole. And the question remains: What would happen to average citizens if they were told by a state agency like DCAM that it will cost them just to have some questions answered?

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