Saturday, July 19, 2008

Open Records' Fee Abuses Keep Public Records Private

The Freeman has posted a useful investigation - - though I don't have a paid subscription and can only link to the short version online - - about the differences in open record charges governments make inquiring citizens pay.

I've worked in the public sector, and I know that charging anything more than the actual few cents-per-page cost is unnecessary, and has two consequences:

Government squeezes a few extra cents or dollars out of a taxpaying citizen, and some people just stop asking, so records that are in the public domain do not circulate.

Some agencies will also tack on "search fees" of many dollars an hour, even though the search is a computer in-house search engine function, not a staffer's commitment of hours pouring through paper files and folders in a warehouse.

And in many cases, I'd argue that finding and copying records for a citizen is a reasonable part of a public employe's job, so adding a fee for the employe's time is a form of double-billing a taxpayer.

I was asked two years ago by one local government to provide a $500 deposit for the acquisition of some computerized documents, and after a legal struggle, did not have to pay those fees.

There are circumstances when asking for some fees are appropriate: massive search requests, or perhaps when the documents are being used in a lawsuit or corporate claim or out-of-town request - - circumstances different than when media or citizens walk into a local government office and want records, and intend to further circulate them in the public arena.

State law provides exceptions to the charging of fees, but it's up to the holder of the record to charge or waive them, and too often, waivers are not granted because it's a way for the agency to make a few bucks or to discourage people from using the state's strong open records law.

The foundation of the state open records law is that it's in the public interest for wide release and distribution of information that is in the public domain, and the presumption is that a record, by its very existence, is already public and should be released, with few exceptions.

Charging onerous fees to keep information away from citizens is a tacky way to let public officials exercise too much power, and to undermine the law.

[Update: Here are the key paragraphs' data:

"On July 1, The Freeman filed open records requests with seven county school districts asking for copies of travel expense reimbursements and credit card statements for district administrators and school board members during the past fiscal year.

'In the requests, The Freeman asked the districts to inform us if the documents would cost more than $20. The Muskego-Norway School District, Pewaukee School District and Kettle Moraine School Districts have notified the paper they’re proceeding with the requests but didn’t say they would cost more than $20.

"Records received from the New Berlin School District cost $10.80 for 108 pages and from the Hamilton School District it cost $20 for 24 pages of documents.

"But the Waukesha School District said its 550 pages would cost $535 and the Elmbrook School District’s 490 pages would cost at least $350.

"In a July 3 letter from Waukesha Superintendent Todd Gray, he said it’ll cost $220 for copies of reimbursements and $315 for the 18 hours it would take district staff to assemble the records, according to the district business office.

"The district charges 20 cents per page to copy documents and charges $18 per hour to have finance department support staff go over the records, Jason Demerath, interim director of business services for the Waukesha School District, said.

"To figure out labor costs, he said the district estimates it would take two minutes of looking at a document to figure out if it was an administrator and if it was for travel.

"Bob Borsch, assistant superintendent of business services for Elmbrook, said the district has a policy of charging 30 cents per copy and estimates that it would take 20 hours of labor at $10 per hour to perform the task.

"In contrast, New Berlin only charged 10 cents per copy and no labor."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been an open records custodian for many years. There's no excuse for excessive charges. The photocopy rate of 25 cents per page (except for legal documents) has been the benchmark recommended by the state for as long as I can remember. Labor isn't supposed to be charged until it crosses the $50 level.

I've heard stories about agencies that charge $5 for the MV4000 vehicle accident report, which shouldn't cost more than $1 (assuming there are no attachments). The DOJ and various organizations hold training on this all the time. The only explanations are poor training or willful disobedience to the law.