Why We’re Suing the Department of Environment and Energy – Flatwater Free Press | Team Cansler

The Flatwater Free Press is suing the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy over its response to an email request for public records.

I want to tell you why.

Our reporter, the intrepid Yanqi Xu, has spent months grappling with issues related to nitrates seeping into groundwater. As their reporting has shown, this pollution is likely related to the high rates of childhood cancer in our state.

We received a tip from a well-placed source that regulators don’t actually regulate.

Tips like this are an important part of investigative reporting. Journalists take them and report them, proving or disproving them, looking for evidence one way or another to show how true the claims are.

This verification process separates our work from the rumor mill. It’s the essence of what we do.

This verification process is why Xu asked both the NDEE and several NRDs about employee emails that used the keyword “nitrate” and several others.

The NRDs have complied.

But that verification process was thwarted by NDEE, which sidestepped our reporting using an increasingly common move from the playbook of recalcitrant officials:

The department asked for an absurd amount of money.

$44,103.11 to be exact.

For that amount of money, the internet tells me, the Flatwater Free Press could buy a brand new Cadillac sedan for their company car. Heck, we could buy two gently used Honda Civics!

For that amount of money we could hire a junior reporter. We could pay our rent for many, many years. We could save money to pay a deposit for a building of our own.

I do not question whether there are costs associated with compiling public records. We regularly ask civil servants — people who are paid taxpayers’ money to do important jobs — to spend their precious time sifting through email, exporting data from sometimes dusty old systems, and sifting through filing cabinets for old reports.

The Records Act allows officers to pay us a portion of these costs. That’s right and fair. The vast majority of the costs we are asked to pay are reasonable. The Flatwater Free Press was happy to pay them.

We did not file this lawsuit casually. Our first step was to speak to and work with the department to make these costs more manageable.

Yanqi talked to department officials several times about how to do this. At her request, she shortened the time frame of our request. She reduced the number of people whose emails we wanted to see. She and I met with officials to understand what else we could do to get the paperwork we wanted to reduce the stress on the department’s work.

These meetings had little impact.

Perhaps my favorite part of the NDEE’s answer is its justification.

Yanqi asked for emails with four keywords: “nitrate,” “nitrogen,” “nutrient,” and “fertilizer.” You’ve probably searched your email for keywords. i know i have Any email client can do this in no time. The state’s Office of the Chief Information Officer even confirmed to us that they could conduct this search themselves, greatly reducing the department’s cost and time.

The thing that takes time, the ridiculous reason to grant our request would cost more than Omaha’s per capita income? The NDEE believes that individual employees should consider whether their own email can be legally withheld.

The Nebraska Public Records Act clearly states that “the records fee shall not include fees for the services of an attorney to review the requested public records to obtain a legal basis to withhold the public records from the public.”

The NDEE does not ask us to pay a lawyer. That would clearly be illegal.

Instead, they are asking us to pay for the costs of having NDEE employees—engineers, secretaries, and other specifically non-legal minds—making a legal decision.

I’m not easily offended. That offends me.

It offends me on behalf of the Flatwater Free Press. we are new We are young(ish). We’re a fucking non-profit organization. Perhaps officials thought we would be deterred by bogus legal claims and big dollars.

We are not.

It offends me on behalf of Nebraska journalism. Years ago, World Herald reporter Todd Cooper and I made a very similar request to the Nebraska Department of Justice for emails containing specific keywords over a period of years. These emails cost us a few hundred dollars. They led to the resignation of officials. The list of significant journalistic work resulting from a fair interpretation of our Record-Keeping Act could fill a handful of notebooks. Officials are robbing us – robbing all Nebraska journalists – of a chance to make it longer.

And, perhaps most importantly, it offends me on behalf of the Nebrascans who are capitalized. We examine water. We examine security as one of the basic building blocks of life. We’re working on tips that bend our regulators back to not regulate them. Instead of opening the books and allowing us to delve in – as our filing law expressly allows all citizens – the ministry throws out an outrageous fee and then tries to justify their claim.

Nebraska’s record keeping law is not specific to journalists. There is no special reporter’s license they give out in journalism school that gives me or any of my staff special authority to access anything.

If they do this to us, what are they going to do with Regular Joes?

Our public institutions are meant to operate publicly. Again and again they don’t.

We lament the lack of public participation. But our civic institutions make it increasingly difficult to participate.

When we launched this bold piece for a Nebraska storytelling future, I told you we were going to dig. I said we’d torment the comfortable. I told you we’re gonna hit it off.

Filing this lawsuit is a very real opportunity to fulfill that promise. We’re doing this because statewide officials shouldn’t be allowed to use large dollars to make questions disappear.

Investigative journalism often boils down to making sure people play by the rules. The NDEE is not.

Fighting for the truth is our mission. Our reporting depends on a fair interpretation of the law.

Therefore, taking this matter before a judge is a natural next step.

We are proud to be able to do this.

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