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Harvard police check IDs to allow access through Harvard Yard during an extended Occupy protest in 2011. (Photo: CampusGrotto.com)

Harvard police check IDs to allow access through Harvard Yard during an extended Occupy protest in 2011. (Photo: CampusGrotto.com)

Cambridge wants thousands of dollars to retrieve copies of its emails – and won’t explain why its costs are so high – and once the emails are retrieved, it wants thousands of dollars more to review them before release. And it claims it cannot provide or process the emails electronically, because they “can be manipulated” and it fears electronic redactions “could be electronically undone,” so it asks for thousands of dollars in photocopying charges.

The problem is so bad that the City Council has taken action.

One expert expressed deep skepticism of the city’s most recent retrieval estimates. “It’s difficult for me to believe that it would take 30 hours to perform an email search under the circumstances,” said Asya Calixto, an associate at Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye with experience in media law. Calixto said the law requires fees charged to be “reasonable.”

Sarah Cadorette

Cadorette

The emails in question span four years and are between the Cambridge Police and the Harvard University Police Department. They range from July 2010 to October 2014. The emails, by law public, were originally requested by Sarah Cadorette, a journalist investigating arrests by Harvard police. Cadorette was interested in the arrest of a protester when the Russian band Pussy Riot was at Harvard in September, and also the closing of Harvard Yard during the Occupy Harvard protests in November and December 2011. Cadorette, a Cambridge resident, used to run The Democracy Center in Harvard Square and is a former contributor to The Weekly Dig.

Cadorette first asked Cambridge for all HUPD emails from July 2010 to September 2014. The city told her that would cost $9,088: $1,533 for 30 hours to “collect” the emails, $5,000 to print them and $2,556 for 50 hours to review. The city estimated it would take 80 hours of work at about $51 per hour and produce 25,000 pages. A month later she tried again: On Oct. 10 Cadorette revised her request to cover smaller periods of November 2011 to January 2012 and May 2014 to October 2014. That cut Cambridge’s cost estimate in half, to $3,648.

On Cadorette’s heels, on Nov. 17, this reporter filed a request to further ease the city’s burden and get more information on the emails; but the city wants $678 to process that request for the smaller time periods.

Council policy order

After Cadorette got the second bill she reached out to city councillor Nadeem Mazen. “I knew he was generally sympathetic to activist causes,” she said. Mazen responded by filing a policy order Nov. 20 asking the city to examine ways to streamline its records processes; to confer with its Information Technology department; and to look at staffing for records requests. The order was delayed for a week by councillor Tim Toomey, but passed the council unanimously on Monday.

Cadorette had tried a crowdfunding campaign, but it fizzled – raising only $200 out of a hoped-for $3,648. Cadorette reached out to Mazen in November because the campaign wasn’t doing well, she said.

City ignores requests to explain

City Solicitor Nancy Glowa told the City Council on Monday that her office’s opinions did not address Bobrowski’s arguments and concerns. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

City Solicitor Nancy Glowa has been slow to explain Cambridge policies and techniques about fulfilling Freedom of Information requests. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

The city has refused repeatedly to explain why it takes 30 hours to retrieve around 25,000 email messages or seven hours for the reduced request of about 7,000 – rather than just a few minutes to direct a computer to do so. Questions sent to Cambridge police Nov. 4 were referred to Nancy Glowa, the city’s top lawyer. Glowa said Nov. 18 that she would reply, but over a month since the questions, and after repeated inquiries, she has not done so.

Glowa did not respond to questions about why only a $51-per-hour employee, such as a lawyer in her office or a police lieutenant, is the lowest-paid employee capable of doing the search and records review. A police records administrator makes $29 per hour and a police student intern makes $16 per hour

The city has shed a little bit of light on its $1,533 retrieval cost, though: The city said Wednesday that the cost included the time spent “printing the relevant documents”; it ignored a request to provide “an accounting of the ‘search and segregation.’”

City confused about records

The city seems not to understand how to handle electronic records, and appears not to understand its obligations under state Public Records Law.

For instance, Assistant City Solicitor Paul Kawai wrote to Cadorette on Sept. 25 saying “the city will not be producing the documents in a form that can be electronically manipulated or which contain redaction metadata.” But according to published guidance from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Public Records Division, the city is “obligated” to provided electronic information in the requested electronic format, if the city is capable of doing so. The guidance isn’t recent – it dates from 1996.

Glowa and her office haven’t responded to queries about electronic manipulation. But being able to manipulate metadata is essential to handling large volumes of records: The simplest “manipulation” is to be able to search electronically for a keyword, rather than paging through thousands of papers by hand.

Jeremy Warnick, a spokesman for Cambridge police, said last month that he thought the redaction concerns related to the possibility of the text in a redacted PDF document being available. He cited a case in which the police tried to redact a police report by drawing black boxes over some names, but the text remained searchable. Warnick hasn’t responded to follow-up queries about using proper redaction tools that remove information rather than covering it with removable black boxes.

In the city’s Dec. 10 cost estimate letter to this reporter, Kawai wrote: “Although you have requested the information in electronic form, it is necessary for the city to print the documents requested in order to produce them so that redacted information can be deleted effectively. If redactions were done electronically, I am advised that there is a possibility that they could be electronically undone.”

Narrowing the request

121414i Cadorette FOIIn response to the city’s high $7,556 estimate for redaction review, this reporter filed a related public records request for partial information about the emails in question: their subjects, dates, and to/from lines. The request was intended “to provide the city with a mechanism to release the metadata for the messages Ms. Cadorette requested without the burden of redaction.”

It didn’t work.

In his Dec. 10 reply, Kawai said redaction review of that metadata would cost $1,048 and consume 1,450 pages of paper. The estimate appears to presume email addresses and dates could be redacted, and also that it would review subject lines individually, rather than consolidating duplicate lines before review, as requested. Since a typical email conversation contains many messages with the same subject, that consolidation should substantially reduce the city’s redaction burden, if redaction review of subject lines is appropriate.

Kawai’s response also included words that don’t make sense: “We assume you are requesting the ‘To, From, CC, Date and Subject lines’ for the emails, and not the actual code behind the ‘To, From, CC, Date and Subject lines,’ which would require additional time and expense to procure.” Asked to clarify, Kawai said Friday that he reviewing that section with his bosses.

Not the first time

Cambridge is known for being difficult with public records request and producing outsized fee estimates. Its attorneys often dodge questions about requests, and the law doesn’t require a formal answer unless there is a “record.” It frequently misses the legal deadline of 10 days.

It has also required high costs for email retrieval in the past. In December 2013, this reporter had to pay $109 to collect one month of email messages to the City Council. But that $109 is substantially higher on a monthly basis than Cadorette’s bill, which works out to $70 per month – 56 percent more.