The Search for the Holy Grail

As Mrs. Higgins taught us back in 6th grade, we are the government and the government is us. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean you are related to your governor (unless you live in West Virginia).

It does mean that if you are ever snatched off the street in broad daylight by a squad of goons who are actually employees of Homeland Security (although at the time you were afraid they might be members of a drug cartel and you were convinced they’d mistaken you for a member of a rival gang and wondered if they’d believe you when you told them your weren’t and even if they did believe you would they let you go or just shoot you and dump your body where only buzzards would find it), as they throw you into the back of a windowless van you can tell them to stop because they actually work for you.

It won’t do you any good, and they may still ship you to Syria, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you were right.

That’s the great thing about our form of government. It belongs to us. And all the stuff it owns belongs to us as well. (WARNING: we’re talking metaphysical concepts here – do not use this as an excuse to drive off with a police car.)

Which is why ordinary Joes like you and me have access to almost all types of public records. Because it’s a record. And it’s public. Which means it’s ours. So we get to see it. Under certain terms and conditions. Which you know will be written in confusing terminology because, after all, it’s the government – the same people who brought you the tax code.

So the terms and conditions vary depending on whether it’s federal or state – and which state you’re in. With the feds you have to make a “Freedom of Information Act” request (or what savvy people call a “FOIA” request, as in “FOY-AH” as in when you’re a federal employee hanging around the copy machine trying not to go back to work you casually mention you just got a Foy-ah so could be tied up for the next six weeks responding to it). After which they’ll make you wait a random amount of time before shipping 3,000 tons of random paperwork which will fill your living room, dining room, bedroom, basement, garage and three storage sheds because that way you’ll be so overwhelmed you’ll never actually look at any of it which is why no one could ever connect Ronald Reagan to the Iran-Contra scandal.

If you happen to be here in Wisconsin, you have to make what we call a “public record request.” (Psst: that’s because the records are subject to public inspection – or supposed to be.)

The basic rules are simple: ask and, with a few narrow exceptions, they have to let you see it. They can’t ask you your name. Or why you want it. About the only thing they can do is say “okay” and give it to you within ten business days.

This of course means that they won’t let you see it. They don’t care what “it” is, they don’t want you to see it because they know you might find out something  bad, maybe secrecy pledges or illegal campaign activities, because that has to be why you’re looking in the first place.

So the exchange will go something like this:

Me: I’d like to see “X.”

Clerk: “No.”

Me:  “Let me see “X.”

Clerk: “Why?”

Me: You can’t ask me that.

Clerk: “Your name please?”

Me: You can’t ask me that.

Clerk: “You have to fill out this form.”

Me: You can’t ask me to do that.

This will be followed by a lengthy period of time during which the clerk will go out of the country indefinitely instead of responding to the request within ten business days, which means you start the process all over again a year later.

Or it will go like this*:

To: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent: March 13, 2012

I noticed that you keep posting video clips on your official website from numerous sources. I also know that requires permission from the copyright owners – and that it appears you don’t have that permission.

Please let me know if you obtained permission from the copyright owners to use their video/film/photographs.

Consider this an public record request for all records relating to or concerning permission to use copyrighted materials online or in any other format for the period January 1, 2011 to present.

From: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Date:
Mar 28, 2012

On March 13, 2012, we received your public records request for the following:

Information regarding whether or not permission was obtained from the copyright owners of news clips used in videos posted on our official website.

A search of the records of the Office has been completed and no responsive records were located.

This completes your public records request. Thank you for contacting the Office of the Guardian of the Holy Grail.

To: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent: March 28, 2012

I asked “for all records relating to or concerning permission to use copyrighted materials online or in any other format for the period January 1, 2011 to present.”

Please respond to the request I actually made.

From: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Date:
March 30, 2012

We interpreted your request as stated above due to the text of your email. However, based on your clarification of March 28, we will now also search the records  for the following:

All records relating to or concerning permission to use copyrighted materials online or in any other format for the period January 1, 2011 to March 13, 2012.

From: Guardian of the Holy Grail
May 1, 2012

The Office of the Holy Grail charges $14.15 per hour and our staff spent 11.97 hours locating the records. Thus, the total amount for locating the records is $169.38. Because this amount is greater than $50.00, we have included this cost on the attached invoice in accordance with Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(c).

Please provide pre-payment of the invoice, in accordance with Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(f), and we will proceed with our efforts to produce the records located.

To: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent: May 01, 2012

You’re kidding, right? You don’t have a file for a copy of all copyright permissions? Somebody in your office has the responsibility for obtaining permission to use copyrighted material and a copy of all agreements to that effect would have been in a file labeled “copyright permissions” or something similar.

Is the staff so incompetent that they didn’t have a filing system for this?

And how many records did this so called search produce?

From: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent:
May 8, 2012

On May 1, we provided you with an invoice for the actual cost of locating the records that you requested. You responded later that day inquiring how many records were produced. The search of records located 140 pages of responsive documents.

You also expressed concern over the amount of time the search took to complete. The amount of time itemized on the invoice is the actual amount of time staff spent searching its records. We searched the records of all 65 staff members employed by the Office [of the Holy Grail] during the period encompassed by your request to ensure that all responsive records were located. The Public Records Law authorizes charges for the actual, necessary, and direct cost of locating records. Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(c).

Upon receipt of pre-payment of the invoice, we will review the records located to determine what can be released under the law. Please be advised that this invoice does not reflect any photocopying fees.

To: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent: May 09, 2012

It appears the cost you are attempting to collect was not “necessary” as required by statute. First, as I previously pointed out – you should have an adequate and easily searchable filing system with copies of all copyright permissions in one location. Only one person should have been responsible for permission to use copyrighted materials, so you had no reason to search “the records of all 65 staff members,” which confirms the cost was not necessary and is being used as a barrier to the release of the requested records.

In addition, you did not provide an itemized statement (it merely said “location of requested records”), which at a minimum would show the actual work performed, by whom, the dates and times the work was performed and describe the tasks performed. I ask that you provide that information, which should also indicate the cost was not “necessary.”

From: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent:
May 16, 2012

A search of each individual’s records was the action required in order to locate the responsive documents.

Each staff member searches his or her own records. The staff members then report the length of time it took them to search their records. Thus, the 11.97 hours was the aggregation of the length of time each person reported to us. This location cost is the only fee that we have charged you and is the only cost that appears on the invoice.

You have also asked for an itemized statement of the location time including “actual work performed, by whom, the dates and times the work was performed and describe the tasks performed.” Currently, we do not have a record of this information.

Once we receive pre-payment of your invoice, we will conduct an extensive review of the records. At the time of release of the eligible records, we will indicate for what reason under the law we have withheld or redacted certain records.

To: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent: May 16, 2012

Seriously? You claim that any of the 65 staff members –  including your janitor –  could have been involved in getting permission from a copyright holder to use copyrighted material?

And you claim that you “do not have a record of this information [the actual work performed, by whom, the dates and times the work was performed and the tasks performed]” Then how in the world were you able to calculate the invoice you sent to me?

You could not have prepared the invoice without that information. You should be able to prove how much time was spent and by whom to be able to derive a valid charge.

So tell me who did what, how much time they spent and the hourly rate for each person. You’d have to explain it to a judge – so why not tell me first?

Or is this like the $7.5 million estimate for damage repair to the capital?

From: Guardian of the Holy Grail
Sent:
May 22, 2012

Although we are not required to do so under the law, as a courtesy to you in the spirit of completing your public records request in a timely manner, we have decided to waive the fees associated with locating the records you seek.

We will begin the legal review of the documents located during the search. If you have further questions about your request at this time, please contact me.

P.S. I’ll be out of the country indefinitely, which means you’ll have to  start the process all over again next year.

*(The story is true. The names were changed to protect the incompetent.)

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Posted on May 25, 2012, in Commentary, government, Humor, Politics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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