Georgia wants $22,434 for COVID-19 records, says they’ll be ready next spring

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reviewed tens of thousands of pages of correspondence among Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency officials like Director Homer Bryson to gauge the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The agency wants to charge $22,434 for the latest batch of government documents. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

State officials want to charge $22,434 for public records that could shed light on Georgia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The estimated bill — submitted to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — dwarfs previous charges for comparable records sought by the newspaper in recent months. The highest previous bill was $1,884.

The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency also informed the AJC that it will take about 34 weeks to produce the records. So emails written between June 17 and Aug. 12 would be available in the spring of 2021.

Previous records have been provided in six weeks or less.

GEMA attributed the cost to the extensive review of sensitive materials required to process the newspaper’s request. Though it was asked, it did not explain why the price is so much higher than previous requests for comparable information.

“As you can see by the attached estimate, broad document request asking for any emails and documents related to Coronavirus response over more than a month long time frame generate thousands of pages, many of which are responsive in nature,” Deputy Director Mark Sexton wrote in an email to the newspaper.

“Due to this, it is necessary to examine each document and redact sensitive information prior to release, resulting in significant man hours expended to fulfill the request,” he said.

Candice Broce, communications director for Gov. Brian Kemp, said Monday that she was not aware of the GEMA bill and did not comment. A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, which has processed many of the AJC’s records requests and is responsible for enforcing the state’s open records laws, did not respond to a request for comment.

The price hike follows the publication of an AJC article that highlighted the agency’s decision to redact thousands of pages of pandemic documents provided to the newspaper. Open government advocates questioned that decision, saying it might violate open records laws.

Richard T. Griffiths, spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the steep price for the latest batch of government records also is disturbing. He said state agencies have jacked up the price of processing records requests when documents “potentially problematic to public officials” are requested.

“The open records laws were designed to allow the public to hold public officials accountable for their decisions and their actions,” Griffiths said. “This seems to be a mechanism to thwart the public’s right to see what is happening in their government.”

The Georgia Open Records Act requires government records to be made available for public inspection. The law allows citizens to scrutinize the inner workings of state and local agencies that spend billions of dollars in taxpayer money and sometimes make life-and-death decisions.

The stakes of government action are especially high during the pandemic. COVID-19 has already claimed the lives of more than 5,600 Georgians and more than 180,000 people nationwide.

For months the AJC has requested and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of GEMA correspondence and documents related to the agency’s pandemic response. The documents have shed light on everything from Kemp’s April statewide shelter-in-place order to the opening of emergency hospitals to the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in contracts for pandemic-related equipment and services.

GEMA redacted thousands of pages of documents, citing various exemptions to the open records law. Many of the redacted documents originated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and are labeled “for official use only.” Among other things, they include information about protective equipment shipped to Georgia, state-to-state comparisons of illness and fatalities, and other information that could help the public gauge the state and federal response to the pandemic.

GEMA says it has no authority to release such federal records, and the AJC has since requested some of the documents directly from the federal agency. The request is pending.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an open government group, told the newspaper that federal agencies sometimes attach the “for official use only” label to documents that cannot be withheld from the public under federal or state law. The group says the label interferes with state responsibilities to release public documents.

Griffiths also found GEMA’s estimated cost and response time for processing the AJC’s latest records request to be suspect.

There’s no reason for a $22,434 bill,” he said. “This (review) could be readily done very quickly with scanning software and a low-level employee looking through this stuff, taking out sensitive material.”

The newspaper has filed five previous requests for correspondence among top GEMA officials related to the coronavirus pandemic. Those requests covered a total of 138 days’ worth of correspondence, from Feb. 1 to June 17.

GEMA charged nothing to process the first two requests. Charges to process subsequent requests were $1,350, $1,884 and $1,295, respectively.

The proposed $22,434 charge for the latest request — which covers 57 days from June 17 to Aug. 12 — is five times the $4,529 the agency has charged for all the previous requests combined.

Likewise, the amount of time GEMA says it will take to process the latest request far exceeds the time it spent on previous requests. In a statement issued after the AJC’s recent article, GEMA said it has given the newspaper “104,838 pages of emails, purchase orders and other sensitive documents, requiring more than 272 man hours to complete.”

Invoices for the newspaper’s previous requests show a somewhat higher total of 338 hours.

But the agency says it will require more than 841 hours to process 66,977 pages of documents for the latest request — 2 1/2 times as long for far fewer documents. GEMA estimates it will take about 34 workweeks at 25 hours per week to process the request.

Sexton, the GEMA deputy director, said in his email to the newspaper that the agency used “parameters” for the estimate that are used by Georgia’s secretary of state’s office. He did not define those parameters or explain the increase in cost or time needed to process the latest request.

The AJC is still evaluating GEMA’s cost estimate. Even if the newspaper agreed to pay the price, Griffiths said key information might be redacted again.

“My concern would be you pay the $22,434 and end up with a lot of documents with a lot of black bars in them,” Griffiths said.

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