Pace: Charging high fees is one way to squash open record requests
The Granby Board of Trustees voted on Tuesday to raise its fees for public records. The hike is a modest one and will only apply if the request takes town staff more than an hour to fulfill. That seems reasonable enough to me.
Whereas public records have run $30 an hour after the first hour spent producing those documents, the town’s new fee will be $33.58 an hour. The fee is set to increase in accordance with state law. Also, the town doesn’t charge anything for the first hour of staff’s time spent producing the records.
Typically, I’m a staunch advocate for low-cost public documents. They’re hugely valuable. That’s why I believe everyone should pay as little out of pocket as possible — and have argued this with various clerks and government staff throughout my career.
Simply put, the public’s ability to access public information is a vital component of any free society. An open government can’t be open only to those who afford the fees. Charging exorbitant prices for public records, essentially pricing some people out of public records, is one way officials limit access, and it’s no way to do the public’s business.
This a natural position for me to take. Open records and open meetings laws have been important pieces of my work as a journalist for years. It’s not that journalists get special privileges with public documents. We don’t. We operate using the same laws that cover the general public, though I believe journalists use public records and meetings more often than a lot of other people do.
While access to government records is something that should rarely be denied, there are some obvious exemptions. These would be people’s private information like social security numbers or medical histories, or the financial information of private businesses.
It takes some thought knowing what’s part of the public sphere and what crosses into private information, but it’s a balance that can be struck with some amount of a staff’s time and effort.
The Colorado Department of Revenue publishes a monthly rundown of county-by-county marijuana sales, but counties with only one dispensary are lumped into one catchall entry so the monthly report won’t show how well an individual business is doing. This is only one example of how the state balances the release of public information against putting out too much.
In most cases, state and federal governments have put up guardrails to keep access to public information public and dictate what fees are reasonable. How individual agencies act within these perimeters is often up to leadership. Some automatically go for the max; others have made many records available for free.
My biggest problems with fees for public records is that many agencies feel like they want to charge the maximum amount as a matter of process rather than a true reflection of the time and materials it took them to produce the records.
As members of the public, we have a right to know how our public agencies permit access to public records and demand the easiest, best access possible. Likewise, those same public officials have an obligation to protect taxpayers’ money as best they can. If that means putting reasonable fees for time spent retrieving, reading through and properly redacting public documents, trying to recoup some of that costs is only good stewardship of public resources.
The good news is Granby’s bump is small enough it shouldn’t be too prohibitive when it comes to producing records. Granby seems to have found a nice balance. As citizens, it’s our job to make sure it stays that way.
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