Government

Cost of public records can be a barrier to transparency

University of Iowa and Iowa State University received more than 1,000 open records requests combined last year

Ashley Hinson
Ashley Hinson
/

The Wisconsin Department of Justice recently said copies of public records shouldn’t cost more than 2 cents a page — the actual cost for paper and use of the copier — but some Iowa government agencies still are charging 50 cents to $1.

“The cost of records is the single largest headache that citizens and journalists face when dealing with public records law today,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “Government is using the cost they are charging as a way of discouraging citizens and journalists from asking for records.”

This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of the access to public information and what it means to you and your community.

Fifty cents or $1 per copy doesn’t sound like much, but when you need to copy a 50-page court ruling or 30 pages of budget documents, the costs can be a barrier. An even larger deterrent to the public’s access to records are hourly fees of $75 or more some agencies charge for computer programming requests or for legal review of requested records.

What is ‘reasonable?’

Iowa Code Section 22 allows government agencies to charge “reasonable” fees for public records.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office provided guidance in a 2005 sunshine advisory that says government bodies can’t charge someone for just looking at a public record, only for the actual costs of retrieving records, making copies or supervising the examination of records.

Government agencies should assign lower-paid staff to retrieve, copy or supervise records to keep costs down, the advice continues.

As for charging for copies of public records, the Attorney General’s Office says: “Officials must determine how much the copy really costs excluding ordinary expenses of the office like a computer system’s depreciation, copy machine maintenance, overhead, electricity and insurance.”

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The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Office of Open Government was more pointed in a three-page advisory in August asking government bodies to review their copying costs and suggesting black-and-white copies should cost less than 2 cents and color copies about 6 cents.

The office says Wisconsin government agencies may not charge a fee for time spent reviewing records or redacting information.

Copy fees

Government agencies in Iowa have varying interpretations of “reasonable” fees, with the Iowa Judicial Branch charging 50 cents per page for copies of court records and some cities charging 50 cents to $1 per page of public documents.

Dallas Center, a central Iowa community of 1,700, had to defend itself last year against a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board that the city’s copy charge was too high. Julie Becker, an unsuccessful City Council candidate, asked to inspect a budget document, but was told it would cost 50 cents a page to copy, according to the Perry News.

Dallas Center officials polled neighboring towns to see how much they were charging for public records. Results ranged from free for 10 or fewer copies and 15 cents after in Johnston, a Des Moines suburb, to $1 per page for copies in Woodward, a town of 1,400 in Dallas County.

“We have to lease our copy machine and that’s how much it costs, including paper and the time it takes to make a copy,” Woodward City Clerk Christina Perkins said Friday.

Perkins said the city of 1,400 used to charge 50 cents but doubled the fee last year when they got the new copier. The city also charges $45 an hour for more labor-intensive records requests, she said.

Carroll Edmondson, court administrator for the 6th Judicial District, which includes Linn and Johnson counties, said he remembers when Iowa’s 99 counties agreed to charge 50 cents per page for court records.

“We used to charge 25 cents a page, but it went up,” he said of the 6th District.

But Edmondson isn’t sure 50 cents reflects the actual cost of making each copy.

“You can go to a copy center and get it done for less than 50 cents a page,” he said. “You raise a good point. Maybe we need to take another look at it.”

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People who don’t want to pay the 50-cents-per-page copy charge can go to a courthouse, get on a public access computer and download the documents to an external drive or email the documents through a private email account, added Steve Davis, judicial branch spokesman.

Hourly rates

The University of Iowa received 741 public records requests in 2018, which include everything from $5 requests for police reports to large data pulls from businesses, reporters or academic researchers. The UI fulfilled 386 requests for free, but charged for another 227 requests and received $13,000 in fees.

The UI estimated costs for another 59 requests, but the requester either opted to not get the records because of the cost or revised the request to avoid the fee, according a report filed with the Iowa Board of Regents.

Iowa State University, with 289 public records requests last year, collected $3,660 for 86 requests. Another 189 requests did not have associated costs, ISU reported.

Regents guidelines say the state universities may charge $30 an hour for public records searches, with the first hour free. Staff time may be used for retrieving records, reviewing records for confidential information or responsiveness to the request or supervising a requester who is examining records. Requests that require computer programming cost $75 an hour.

Iowa Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, said she’s heard about the costs media outlets and the public are paying for records and she is open to considering legislation limiting those charges. Hinson is a former KCRG-TV9 reporter.

“If people don’t have access to those records, that’s a big problem in my mind,” she said. “It shouldn’t cost that much money to get these records.”

Evans, the open government advocate, said government bodies should not charge for staff time to fulfill public records requests because citizens already pay for these services through taxes.

“The FOI Council feels government employees doing government work ought not be charging the citizens for their services,” he said. “When they impose those kinds of fees, it invites citizens to go away disgruntled and think there is something nefarious going on.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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