Public records' price tag shouldn't be a barrier

If pretty is as pretty does, then the same must be true for public records.

What good does it do to legally require public agencies and boards to open their books to public scrutiny if the price they charge for doing so is more than the average Joe can afford?

That was a second major theme running through free press and open government events organized by the Iowa Newspaper Association and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in Iowa City on Thursday.

In my column Saturday, I talked about the other theme: Thorny issues at the intersection of technology and transparency.

But even when records do exist, affording them can be another matter, entirely.

Iowa law allows public entities to charge “reasonable” fees for staff time and materials in complying with open records requests. What’s “reasonable?” It depends on who you ask.

It’s a question that’s consistently being brought to the state’s new Public Information Board by government officials and the public, Chairman Bill Monroe said during the board’s morning meeting in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber.

Usually, it’s media companies that bear the financial burden, which can be significant.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Human Services reportedly charged the Des Moines Register $31,776 to collect and hand over data on use of seclusion rooms over two years at the Iowa Juvenile Home.

A relatively modest request recently made of the UI by Gazette reporters will cost an estimated $525, Managing Editor Annette Schulte said Thursday afternoon, as part of a panel discussion about transparency at the UI. The Gazette was told filling that request would take an estimated six or seven hours of database work, Schulte said. That’s $75 an hour.

“That’s expensive, even for us,” she said. “It’s probably exorbitant for the average Iowan.”

Later, UI journalism Professor Steve Berry talked of “prohibitive and often arbitrary fees.”

The problem, as Berry sees it, is in how much wiggle room there is in the word “reasonable.”

He suggests changing it to “minimal” — as close to $0 as it can be.

“The ideal should be that open records are part of open government,” Berry said. “It should be considered a cost of doing business in a democracy.”

He has a valid point.

Cash-strapped public entities might not be in the best position to absorb the costs associated with public records requests, but there has to be a compromise.

Just as with electronic communication, it does little good to call information public if the public can’t get to it.

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