Rosemary Cundiff, the state’s records ombudsman, recently posted an explanation of what fees can be charged under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
To put it in a nutshell, government entities can charge “reasonable fees” to cover the costs of producing records. The idea is that the employee who is filling the records request is being pulled away from other duties and there’s the cost of the paper and toner in the copier.
During the HB477 debacle in 2011, then-Rep. John Dougall attempted to expand the definition of reasonable fee to include the cost of benefits for said employee, the utilities for the office building and whatever else he could to jack up the fees.
Cundiff outlines what should be considered as a reasonable cost, such as only billing for the hourly wage of the lowest-paid person who can fulfill the request. That means if a $7.25-an-hour clerk can find the documents, the agency can’t bill you for the $200-an-hour lawyer to do the same thing.
Utah does allow for fee waivers, but as Cundiff points out — and many record seekers have learned the hard way — that the law says fees may be waived. In other words, an agency can waive fees out of the goodness of its heart, but is not legally required to do so.
This leaves the door open for some agencies to turn public records into a revenue stream, or use a fee as a way to discourage people from seeking records, since they are not commanded to waive fees.
State Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to address this by taking away the discretion in cases where the public benefited from releasing the document. But after the Utah League of Cities and Towns said the move would drive cities to the brink of fiscal ruin, lawmakers threw the bill into interim study, where open government advocates hope it will be considered and not allowed to die a slow, quiet death.
But in the meantime, what can people do to ensure that they are not paying too much for public records?
First, as Cundiff points out, there is no fee to merely look at a public record. People can do this to narrow their search to exact pages they are looking for, and thus reduce their copying costs. The agencies are barred from charging for staff time for these inspection sessions.
And if you want copies, make them yourself, as Joel Campbell, an assistant professor of print journalism at Brigham Young University pointed out. There are portable scanners that look like wands and don’t have to be hooked up to a computer to make a digital copy of a document. Or just use your digital camera or cellphone to take a picture of the document, as I’ve done in the past.
If the records are electronic, bring a thumb drive to copy them.
And if you get charged a fee, ask for a specific breakdown of the cost, line by line. And it helps to do a little homework before and find out what other agencies are charging for copy fees, as well as what the local copy shop charges for a photocopy. If a copy shop can make money off a 7-cent copy, why is a government agency charging 25 cents or even a dollar?
If all else fails, fees can be appealed in the same manner as denials. While the law says fees may be charged, the State Records Committee has found instances where an outrageous fee was being used as a means to deny access and ordered the fee waived.