The more access we all have to public records, the better.
Getting a government document in your hands or sent to your email address should be quick and easy — especially in this digital age.
But ironically, it is the advancement of technology that has, in part, made it more difficult for some public agencies to meet the request demands.
It is now easier than ever to shoot off an email and request volumes of unspecified documents, but the Public Records Act of 1972 was not crafted with computers or smartphones in mind.
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In order to bring it up to date, two bills introduced this year survived House and Senate negotiations and, as of this writing, are headed to the governor’s desk.
Together, they form a compromise that we hope will modernize our precious public records law without eroding its power.
House Bill 1595 will affect the requesters.
Until now, public agencies have been able to charge a default rate of up to 15 cents per page for photocopying documents. But there is no fee set up for records that are delivered electronically.
Now, agencies will be allowed to charge up to 10 cents per page of scanned documents and up to 5 cents for every four electronic attachments. Government workers also will be able to charge up to 10 cents per gigabyte of data or impose a flat fee of $2 for large requests.
Initially, we balked at the idea of a $2 flat rate because we thought it could be abused, with agencies charging the set fee even when requests clearly didn’t cost that much.
In order to prevent that situation, however, a provision was put in the bill that requires an agency to prove the cost of providing the request is clearly $2 or more. Government officials also must provide a summary of charges to the requester before the copies are made.
Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Allied Daily Newspapers in Washington, said that provision was a crucial addition, and because of it his organization was able to back the legislation.
While continued free access to digital copies would be great, we think the new fees are modest enough that honorable citizens won’t be turned off.
People who are simply trying to be a nuisance, however, may think twice before bombarding their city hall with overly-broad requests.
The second piece of updating the records act is in House Bill 1594, which requires government agencies to maintain logs of public records requests and responses.
This is important because anecdotal stories are not good enough. We need hard data so we can know for sure just how much of a burden records requests have become.
HB 1594 also requires the state Attorney General’s Office to create a program that assists local governments in managing records requests. In addition, the state archives division will look at establishing a statewide internet portal for public documents.
These both seem like promising steps.
We are living at a time where information is more readily available than ever before, and we want government agencies to provide public records as quickly and easily as a search on the internet. But most agencies are not there yet.
People who overwhelm the system with requests just because they can are abusing their privilege. We needed a way to weed out the troublemakers from the legitimate requesters without going against the spirit of the public records law.
The recent legislative changes appear to do that. We hope they help, and not hinder the process.