The records custodian for the University of Missouri System on Wednesday said the $82,000 cost estimate she provided to the Beagle Freedom Project in response to a Sunshine Law request was by far the largest she had ever issued in the position.

Questioned by Circuit Judge Jeff Harris, Paula Barrett said the second-highest cost estimate was between $10,000 and $15,000. Under questioning by a university attorney, she said the Beagle Freedom Project request was the largest request she had received.

Barrett was the main witness Wednesday, the second day of the Beagle Freedom Project's Sunshine Law case against the university. The animal rights group, which encourages supporters to "adopt" dogs and cats used in research and obtain the records of their use and care, wants the university to be fined for obstructing its efforts to obtain the records.

After numerous individual requests sent to the university in 2015 and 2016 generated costs ranging from about $300 to almost $700, Beagle Freedom Project submitted a request for records of 179 dogs and cats used by MU. Barrett responded with an estimate of $82,222.23.

The Beagle Freedom Project sued, saying the high cost was intended to discourage access to public records.

Harris has said he will not rule at the close of testimony and has asked attorneys to present proposed findings for him to review by Aug. 20.

Most of the cost estimate involved the work of principal investigators in research projects, Barrett said in response to a question from Harris.

In an email entered into evidence, Barrett chastised one of those principal investigators, Martin Katz, who sent an email to several people, including Barrett, saying that the Beagle Freedom Project should be investigated as a possible criminal organization. Barrett wrote in her response that it wasn't appropriate for university personnel to investigate the backgrounds of records requesters.

She also talked about an email in which Katz presented several demands for costs for his search.

"Dr. Katz made up his own little formula in this email," Barrett said. "It's not what I based my estimate on."

Barrett said she included the cost of benefits as well as the salary of those who would conduct the records search and retrieval in her calculation of the cost by adding 27.2% to salaries. She does that with every estimate, she said.

"It's the total cost to the university," Barrett said.

That includes benefits, she said.

"Those are all included in the cost of an employee," Barrett said. "When I started in my position I was trained that was how we calculated. It's been the standard of practice. That's how we've done it."

University attorneys initially objected to testimony involving Katz, based on hearsay. Harris allowed the testimony.

"Dr. Katz has deemed himself unavailable," Harris said.

Katz has refused a subpoena to testify and a process server was not allowed past a security guard at MU to deliver it.

The Sunshine Law states the hourly fee for duplicating records can't exceed the hourly rate of pay of the person performing the work. It states that records should be produced "using employees of the body that result in the lowest amount of copies for search, research and duplication time."

Governments also are allowed to charge the actual cost of research time and 10 cents per page for paper copies.

Barrett said she has reduced estimates presented to her that were out of line with other estimates.

Some of the costs to produce records for Beagle Freedom Project had increased for the same animal compared with requests for the same documents by individuals in its Identity Campaign.

Barrett said the people doing the work may have had raises and the animals had been with the university six months longer, producing more records.

Before she was excused, Harris questioned Barrett about how she approaches large estimates to fulfill Sunshine Law requests, asking whether she had ever “pushed back” against staff time and cost estimates for a request if she thought they were excessive.

Barrett replied she had done so by reducing estimates when they are not reasonable. In the current case, the principal investigators were the holders of the records and knew best the work involved in producing them, she said.

Harris then asked her if she considered calling the requester to discuss cost estimates.

Barrett replied she did not. If the requester was concerned about the cost, they can call her, she said.

As he drilled into her answers, Harris asked whether the Sunshine Law and the university’s status as a governmental entity obligated her to reach out and discuss the request.

The requesters know what they asked for and she said she was not sure that she had an obligation to contact them.

The Sunshine Law allows public agencies to waive fees to promote transparency and serve the public interest. Harris asked Barrett if she had considered that for the Beagle Freedom Project request.

Barrett responded that she can waive costs but only does so with input from the university's external communications department and general counsel. The university has only waived fees for two requests, once for the death of Columbia firefighter Lt. Bruce Britt in a walkway collapse on university property and the other for records of the 2015 student-led protests.

Another witness on Wednesday was Shannon Fickes, a senior support specialist in the Office of Animal Resources. She was tasked with compiling estimates of time from the principal investigators.

She emailed one of the researchers during the Identity Campaign that it was likely the expense would prohibit most requesters from pursuing anything further.

"I think a lot of times activism happens and a lot of times if there's a cost, it's not followed through with," Fickes said.

Pat Pratt of the Tribune contributed to this report.

rmckinney@columbiatribune.com

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