Have you ever gone to pick up some official document and winced when you saw the Xerox bill?
When that happened to Terry Francke, lawyer for the Californians Aware good government group, he filed a lawsuit under the state Public Records Act.
Californians Aware photoTerry Francke
Francke’s target is the Contra Costa Community College District, which includes 35,000-student Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill.
“We heard – I can’t remember how – that there was a high charge for public records there, and we decided to test it,” he says.
So Francke filed a request for basic documents about Helen Benjamin, the district’s $272,000-per-year chancellor: her employment contract, her financial disclosure report and her recent expense account billings.
The district presented Francke with 80 pages of documents – and a bill for $80. It included a $60 fee for 90 minutes of “staff time,” at $40 per hour.
Francke complained, noting that state law explicitly says that agencies can charge the public only the “direct cost of duplication” for documents. The state attorney general’s guidelines on the Public Records Act say that fees must “not include the staff person’s time in researching, retrieving, redacting and mailing the record.”
district photoChancellor Helen Benjamin
When he pointed that out, the district was unmoved, Francke said. Vice Chancellor Kindred Murillo said the fee was the district’s “business procedure.”
Now the district must defend a lawsuit filed Monday in Contra Costa Superior Court. If Californians Aware wins, the district – and thus, the taxpayers – must pay his legal fees. That’s in the law, as well.
Last spring, when trustees of CSU Stanislaus tried to keep a secret of the speaking fee they were paying former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Francke sued to pry loose the documents. The fee turned out to be $70,000. The college had to pay Francke’s lawyers that time, too.