A request by Wentzville Patch for a police report on a peace disturbance involving Wentzville Alderman Rick Stokes may have cost the city nearly $1,000 in attorney's fees, according to city officials.
The cost appeared out of line with the cost for similar reports requested by Patch—including one from the same department in August.
The police report was in regards to an Aug. 8 incident at Wentzville's Buffalo Wild Wings, where another Buffalo Wild Wings customer, Jason Johns, accused Stokes of not washing his hands in the bathroom. When Johns confronted Stokes in the parking lot of the restaurant, Stokes tried to pull out of his parking space before calling police.
The incident had already been reported as part of the regular police blotter feature on Wentzville Patch. The item released to Patch by the police department stated that Johns, 32, was arrested for peace disturbance.
Wentzville Patch requested a detailed report on the incident Sept. 5 via a Missouri Freedom of Information Act request and was informed by city officials that the request would cost Patch $5 for the paper report, $5 for each CD or DVD and any added clerical and/or attorney fees.
When Patch received the report three weeks later, it included a 16-page paper copy of the report with witness statements and two DVDs. The only items redacted from the report were addresses, social security numbers and automobile license information of Stokes and Johns.
Per Missouri law, Patch requested a breakdown of the $76 fee that was charged.
That breakdown, provided to Patch by city officials, was $15 for the paper copy and DVDs, $11 for clerical time, and a $50 charge for research by the city attorney.
Patch was also informed that the actual cost included more than $1,000 worth of legal fees that would be paid to City Attorney Paul Rost—$725 for five hours of legal research and $290 for clerical time. However, the city decided that amount was excessive and Patch was charged a flat $50 for the legal research.
Wentzville Police Chief Lisa Harrison confirmed that the remainder of the legal fees would be picked up by the city.
Missouri law allows governmental bodies to charge up to 10 cents per page for paper copies and for the hourly fees for duplicating time, in the case of records requests.
The statute also says that "research time required for fulfilling records requests may be charged at the actual cost of research time. Based on the scope of the request, the public governmental body shall produce the copies using employees of the body that result in the lowest amount of charges for search, research, and duplication time."
Charles Davis, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and an expert on Sunshine law, said it was unusual for a city to pay such large attorney's fees to check over a police report.
"That is a heck of a lot of money for a police report, especially one for such a simple, straightforward event," he said.
Patch requested a similar police report from the Wentzville Police Department for an Aug. 16 peace disturbance incident in order to compare fees. The charge for that report was $5 and the only items redacted were the street numbers of the subjects' addresses. No attorney fees were charged.
Harrison said each situation is viewed on its own merit and that she had made the call to have the case reviewed by the attorney before releasing it.
"We don't give out personal information," she said. "Also, there were legal implications."
Harrison wouldn't elaborate on what legal implications might have been at hand.
When asked if the excessive costs were due to the fact that an alderman was involved, Harrison said, "Absolutely not. It could have been the same if it was any two other citizens."
Patch has previously requested police reports regarding city officials. In May, St. Peters Patch requested a police report in regards to St. Peters Alderman Gus Elliott, who was accused of harassment.
Patch received the entire report—more than 100 pages—with nothing redacted, for a $10 fee.
Patch requested a police report on a peace disturbance from the Lake Saint Louis Police Department on Oct. 9—a case that resulted in an arrest—and the clerk at the window of the police department pulled the report from a computer database, redacted personal information from the four-page report and finished the transaction in less than 15 minutes. There was no charge.