Secretary of State Corey Stapleton wants $267.16. Not from us, the taxpayers, but from a Helena-based liberal blogger and teacher. That's the going rate for government records these days. Specifically, for receipts documenting various purchases by Stapleton's office, including tires, Amazon video rentals and a New Zealand hotel stay.
Don Pogreba, the aforementioned teacher and founder of the Montana Post (formerly Intelligent Discontent) sent a formal request for the receipts last week after perusing the state's online credit card payment database. The response from Stapleton's chief of staff thanked Pogreba for his interest, then quoted the price. Pogreba took his cause to the crowdsourcing site GoFundMe and raised $1,275 in less than a week.
Fighting for public records isn't exactly new. Newspapers do it all the time, and it's not always easy. But we've got publishers and attorneys and fancy business cards on our side. The process can be significantly more daunting for Citizen Jane or Joe.
Some academics have sought support from private institutions. Alaska-based researcher Tara Burns turned to Patreon to fund her requests for records on sex trafficking and prostitution arrests. Mere money wasn't enough for the state of Tennessee, which declines to fulfill requests from non-residents regardless of whether they're journalists, researchers or public citizens. Montana, at least, will fulfill records requests from out of state, but there is nothing in state law that requires a response, rejection or even acknowledgement of a request within any particular time frame.
Improvement in open records access will require change at the legislative level. Our neighbor, Idaho, doesn't charge requesters for the first two hours of research or the first 100 pages of records, for example, thanks to legislation passed in 2011. The Montana Legislature has avoided the issue of records costs since 2009, when then-Rep. Dan Villa (now the state budget director) proposed a bill expanding civil penalties for violations of a citizen's right to knowbut only after a court rules on the matter. Until Montana decides to address the cost of transparency, those without flush newspaper budgets (ahem...) will continue to face financial hurdles. So we salute Pogreba for joining the Freedom of Information crusade, and we're heartened to see the support that his GoFundMe campaign has generated. Because until Freedom of Information is, well, free, it's a cost we should all be willing to bear.