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Cost of copying public records varies widely

May 01, 2010|By ANDREW SCHOTZ
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o Bulk of information requests related to fire, police calls

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A one-page photocopy that costs 25 cents at Hagerstown City Hall will cost 20 times as much -- $5 -- at the Hagerstown Police Department.

The gap illustrates the wide latitude in providing public information in Maryland, where the law gives little guidance.

Maryland's Public Information Act (PIA) says government agencies may charge a "reasonable" fee for public records.

"Reasonable" is defined as "bearing a reasonable relationship to the recovery of actual costs incurred by a governmental unit."

Washington County government charges 15 cents a page for many public information requests, but the Washington County Sheriff's Department charges $5 for the first page and $1 for each additional page.

The Hagerstown Police Department charges $5 for the first four pages and $1 for each additional page.

In the last two city budget proposals, the police department recommended lowering its fees to reflect actual costs, but nothing changed. The suggestion also is in the proposed 2010-11 budget.

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Hagerstown Police Capt. Jack Moulton said he has recommended the change because fees "should be uniform across the city."

However, at the sheriff's department, Major Sam Billotti said fees cover the cost of the time an employee spends filling requests.

"We try to pass that to the individual (asking for information) or it would be recouped through every citizen," Billotti said. "We're not trying to make any money on this process ... We believe that $5 for the first page and $1 each additional page is reasonable."

The PIA says government agencies can charge for research time, but the first two hours are free. It reads: "The official custodian may not charge a fee for the first 2 hours that are needed to search for a public record and prepare it for inspection."

If the sheriff's department collects money for staff time in the first two hours, that violates the PIA, said Maryland Assistant Attorney General William Varga, who specializes in open government and public records issues.

"They're obligated to fund it out of their pocket ..." he said. Otherwise, "that's inconsistent with the statute."

A 1986 Maryland attorney general's office opinion talks briefly about setting fees, but also isn't specific.

The opinion notes that the Maryland General Assembly determined that the PIA "shall be construed in favor of permitting inspection of a public record, with the least cost and least delay to the person or governmental unit that requests the inspection."

Billotti noted that the sheriff's department responds to a lot of PIA requests. Last year, it processed 672.

At 25 cents a photocopy, "would that really be enough to pay a county employee to process all those requests through? Somebody has to do that," Billotti said. "The copies don't make themselves. All those things take time."

Although Moulton has recommended a lower fee, he agreed that it takes staff time to work on requests.

Even if two hours of search and preparation time are free, the city should recover the costs of paper, ink and staff time for making copies, he said. While one employee is handling a PIA request, another might need to be paid overtime.

Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said the charge for accident and incident reports is primarily for insurance companies, which make a large percentage of requests.

Crime victims aren't charged for copies of reports, Mullendore said.

Maryland State Police charge a $4 search fee to provide a copy of an accident report.

The cost for other photocopies is 75 cents a page, but there's no charge if the total cost would be $1 or less. The state police don't charge for the first two hours of search time for documents that aren't accident reports.

Businesses with copy centers charge less than local governments do.

Staples in Halfway charges 9 cents for an employee to make a single-side, black-and-white, letter-size copy, and 8 cents if the customer does it himself.

Kinko's charges 11 cents for an employee-made copy and 8 cents for a self-service copy.




Attorney values public data, dislikes high fees



Ninety-nine percent of the payments to the Washington County Sheriff's Department last year for public-information requests were in the $5-to-$10 range.

Two separate requests for documents resulted in fees of more than $100.

The highest total, by far, was $177.

Jason W. Shoemaker, an attorney representing Floyd Edward Bingaman III, paid that while doing research on behalf of his client.

Bingaman was sentenced in 2008 to 30 years in prison for killing 4-month-old Justice Christopher Calvin Myers-Cannon, whose mother was Bingaman's girlfriend.

Shoemaker said he gathers information for cases two ways -- through discovery, a formal procedure leading up to a trial, and through public records requests -- which sometimes are more fruitful.

"The Maryland Public Information Act is the most underrated in the history of the world," said Shoemaker, whose firm is in Bethesda, Md.

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