Cost of Georgia COVID records: $33,000 and rising

The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency has redacted thousands of pages of documents sought by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to gauge Georgia's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now GEMA says it doesn't need to completely redact the documents. But the change is one factor in a dramatic increase in the cost GEMA wants to charge to process the newspaper's records requests.
The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency has redacted thousands of pages of documents sought by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to gauge Georgia's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now GEMA says it doesn't need to completely redact the documents. But the change is one factor in a dramatic increase in the cost GEMA wants to charge to process the newspaper's records requests.

The price tag for documents that could shed light on Georgia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has escalated to nearly $33,000.

That’s what the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency says it will cost to process three Atlanta Journal-Constitution requests for pandemic correspondence among top agency officials and Gov. Brian Kemp’s office. GEMA also says it will take 1,230 hours to do the work — meaning it could be about eight months before the newspaper receives many of the documents.

The cost and time estimates far exceed those for previous AJC requests for comparable documents.

This week GEMA attributed the price hike to a new fee schedule developed in response to “a major shift in the frequency and breadth of open record requests we received in recent months.” It also cited a change in its interpretation of the Georgia Open Records Act.

“We want you to know that GEMA/HS is committed to transparency and to upholding the free exchange of information,” the agency told the AJC. GEMA said it has “followed the example of other Georgia agencies in implementing a reasonable fee for the search, retrieval, redaction and production of requested records.”

Many state agencies provide public documents free of charge or at minimal cost.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, whose job includes enforcing the Open Records Act, has not responded to requests for comment on the validity of the agency’s bills.

However, an open government expert questioned the reasonableness of the GEMA charges, noting that Georgia had some of the highest costs for public records in the country in a study last year. And some legislators believe government agencies are abusing provisions of the Georgia Open Records Act to stonewall requests for public information.

“That may be something we have to revisit in the General Assembly,” said state Rep. Andrew Welch, R-McDonough, an attorney who practices local government law.

The Georgia Open Records Act requires state and local agencies to make government records available for public inspection. Citing the law, the AJC has requested and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of GEMA correspondence related to the state’s COVID-19 response.

The documents have aided the newspaper’s coverage of a pandemic that has sickened more than 307,000 Georgians and claimed the lives of more than 6,600. Among other things, they have shed light on Kemp’s April statewide shelter-in-place order, the opening of emergency hospitals and the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in contracts for pandemic-related equipment and services.

By GEMA’s accounting, it has provided about 105,000 pages of emails and documents in response to AJC requests. The newspaper has paid $4,529 for those documents.

But beginning in August, GEMA raised the price of processing the newspaper’s requests. GEMA said it would cost an estimated $22,434 to process a request for 57 days of correspondence. That’s five times the total amount the AJC paid for 4 1/2 months of correspondence under previous records requests.

The amount of time GEMA said it would take to complete the request also skyrocketed. The agency said it would take 841 hours — or 34 workweeks — to process the request. The agency has billed the newspaper for a total of 338 hours to respond to all the previous records requests combined.

The newspaper has recently filed two additional records requests — for correspondence from Aug. 12 to Sept. 1 and from Sept. 1 to Sept. 15, respectively. GEMA says it will cost a combined $10,379 and 389 hours to complete those requests. That brings the total cost of processing the three outstanding requests to $32,813.

The AJC is evaluating its response to GEMA’s estimates.

“The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeks this information on behalf of the public," said AJC Editor Kevin Riley. "The citizens of Georgia should know the facts about their leaders' response to the pandemic, wherever those facts lead.”

For several weeks GEMA did not respond when the newspaper asked for an explanation for the rising cost and time estimates. When asked again Monday, it emailed an explanation.

GEMA said it has received few records requests in the past, so it had no formal fee schedule.

“However, in the last few months, the amount of requests sent to our office increased dramatically,” GEMA said. “Due to this increase, it was necessary to develop a fee schedule to help compensate for the time we have lost in performing the traditional functions of our agency.”

GEMA also cited a change in interpretation of the Open Records Act under new Director Chris Stallings, who replaced the recently retired Homer Bryson.

Previously, GEMA completely redacted thousands of pages of documents provided in response to AJC records requests. Many of those originated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and were labeled “for official use only.” GEMA previously said it does not have the authority to release those documents.

Now Stallings has determined GEMA does not need to redact those documents entirely. But GEMA says its staff and attorneys now must review and redact them as needed to comply with state law — a process that presumably takes more time.

David Cuillier, a University of Arizona professor who has studied state open records laws, reviewed a GEMA cost estimate provided to the AJC.

“I can say that these fees are terribly high compared to other states, and that the law is not very good in Georgia,” Cuillier said.

Last year Cuillier studied how state agencies across the country responded to more than 7,000 records requests over several years. He found Georgia completed just 36% of the 175 records requests he studied, ranking 40th in the nation. He also found Georgia had some of the highest average copy fees in the nation.

“(GEMA and FEMA) should provide the records for free, given the public interest and importance during this pandemic,” Cuillier said. “The agencies have the ability to provide it for the public for free, so they should.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, an attorney, also was troubled by GEMA’s estimated charges. She’d like to see additional enforcement mechanisms in the state law.

“Especially at a time when we’re in the middle of a public health crisis, there is an incredible need for transparency and for the government to open up their books,” she said.

“We’ve got billions of dollars of federal funding coming into this state,” Jordan said. “There’s got to be some way of making sure what is happening is what’s supposed to be happening and to hold people accountable if it’s not. And the only way you get that is if you have information.”

Welch, the state representative, said he couldn’t comment on the particulars of the AJC’s request. But he said he’s seen government agencies abuse the flexibility afforded them in the state open records law.

“The purpose of the act is being suborned, and we need to revisit that,” Welch said.

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