When The Baltimore Sun requested three days of emails sent to or by a trio of officers who help run Baltimore’s troubled speed camera program, the Police Department made clear the messages would be released only at a cost.
As in about $2,000, possibly more.
Yet the city Department of Transportation didn’t charge The Sun anything for 6,400 pages of emails that were sent to or by several of its employees.
Same city government, same legal department, same state public records law — but notably different outcomes that point to inconsistency when it come to applying the Maryland Public Information Act.
The Sun asked both the police and transportation departments for emails that were written in mid-April, when the city abruptly suspended its red light and speed camera program amid fresh signs that some motorists had been wrongly ticketed. The goal was to gain insight into a major decision about a significant program that the two agencies manage.
A few weeks later, a city lawyer provided the Transportation Department’s emails at no cost. The state public records law allows government agencies to charge “reasonable” fees for searching and preparing records, and for making copies. But it lets them waive costs if it’s in the public interest.
The DOT emails showed how the city, in short order, moved from taking one speed camera out of enforcement mode to declaring the whole camera program was on hold indefinitely.
The Police Department didn’t offer its emails gratis. Instead, city lawyers who represent it estimated it would take more than 40 hours to go through all 3,700 messages from the three days. The department says it typically charges $50 an hour “for review or preparation of records.” That works out to $2,000, though the state law requires that the first two hours be free.
One challenge, police spokesman Sgt. Eric Kowalczyk said, is that email searches are much more "labor-intensive" for users of the Police Department's email system, which is called GroupWise, compared to other email systems such as Microsoft Outlook.
The Sun scaled back its request, asking only for emails from one of the officers, Sgt. Paul McMillian, and only emails between him and four officials at the Department of Transportation and speed camera vendor Brekford Corp. The idea was to target only emails related to the automated cameras.
Christopher R. Lundy, a city lawyer at the Police Department, wrote in an email that McMillian sent or received 450 emails. But Lundy said it wasn’t an easy matter of electronically sorting his emails to isolate those involving the four other individuals, and then providing those.
“I estimate that it will take at least 8 hours to review the messages,” Lundy wrote. That would work out to $400 at $50 an hour, or $300 assuming the first two hours would be free.
Again The Sun scaled back its request, now seeking only however many emails could be provided in the two free hours. But on Monday Kowalczyk passed on news from Lundy and his legal colleagues: “They’ve expended the majority of the two hours already researching.”
Kowalczyk didn’t say how much time was left on the meter.
Finally on Tuesday, Kowalczyk unexpectedly provided 27 pages of McMillian’s emails, most of them variations of the same email and one that had been included weeks earlier in the DOT documents. That wasn’t quite the end of the story, though. Lundy wrote in an accompanying letter that the search had required five hours — including the two free hours.
And now the city wanted The Sun to pony up, even though the newspaper never agreed to make any such payment. “Please remit a check in the amount of $150.00,” Lundy wrote, “made payable to the Director of Finance.”