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Is cost to obtain public records truly reasonable?

May 19, 2010

Public records can hardly be called public if they can only be obtained at considerable expense.

What's the definition of "considerable"? Oh, let's just say it's the opposite of "reasonable."

State law guarantees that individuals generally have the right to copies of public records, no questions asked, although it allows that local governments may charge a "reasonable" fee that covers the cost of copying the documents and the time it takes for the staff to collect the paperwork.

Washington County governments have a broad interpretation of this reasonability. Washington County government charges 15 cents a page, but the sheriff's department charges $5 for the first page and $1 a page after that. A one-page copy will cost 25 cents at City Hall, but $5 for the first four pages at the city police department, and $1 for pages 5 and up.

We suspect that policing agencies charge more since the lion's share of requests come from insurance companies investigating accidents and lawyers working on a criminal defense. Few tears will be shed if a lawyer or insurance company has to shell out $25 for an accident report.

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But the problem is twofold. First, individuals can easily be unfairly swept up in the expensive pricing schedule, and second, a clear danger exists when any local government starts to see a moneymaking opportunity in what should be a public right.

If a policing agency can get away with $1 or $5 a page, what's to stop any other locality from boosting its prices as well?

To some degree, government agencies have a point when they say that a public-records request can tie up a staff member for hours - hours that this staff member could theoretically be using to serve the public as a whole instead of one individual.

State law says that the first two hours of staff research are supposed to be free, but the government agency can charge for more time-consuming projects.

Again, this - like the definition of "reasonable" - is vague and open to manipulation since we have to take the government's word for how much time it took to retrieve the records in question.

And in the end, we would argue that, whether it is one person or a thousand, it is the government's job to serve the people. We do not complain when "only" one person at a time is being served at a window of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Why should a public information request be any different?

Further, the provision of information is no small part of any government's duties. In short, the taxes we already pay should go a long way toward covering the cost of staff time since, lest we forget, it is the staff's job to serve the public.

If this staff time is such a burden, however, it might behoove local governments to catalog as many public records as possible on their websites, where individuals, attorneys and corporations alike could access them online at no expense to the government and for no more than the cost of paper and ink to those who desire the information.

This solves multiple problems and saves state lawmakers the trouble of going back to the drawing board to try to define the word "reasonable."

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