The High Cost of Free Access and the Public’s Right to Know
Earlier this year, Planet Princeton filed a public records request with Princeton Township to review the emails sent and received by three municipal employees over a period of a few months. The price tag to fulfill the request — $840.
That fee was to have the emails redacted for inspection, not to obtain actual photocopies. Planet Princeton would have had to pay an additional 5 cents per page for every email we wanted a hard copy of. That is the fee set for photocopies under the state’s Open Public Records Act.
Princeton Township levied what is known as a “special service charge” for the redaction of the emails. The emails apparently totaled 6,000 pages. Instead of informing the reporter that the request would result in so many pages before the emails were printed out and redacted, the reporter was informed after the fact. A township employee first called the reporter to say that the request was going to cost a few thousand dollars, and that the reporter was going to have to pay 5 cents a page for every print out of each email even if the reporter just wanted to inspect the emails on site, because the emails had to be printed out to be redacted, and at least 12 reams of paper had already been used to prepare the emails for redaction. The reporter was also told a special service charge would be levied for the township’s technology person to get the emails off the server and for the municipal lawyer to redact the emails, at his hourly rate.
Planet Princeton disputed the way the request was handled and then received a letter from the municipal lawyer who said the town needed more time to redact the records and to figure out what the special service charge, if any, would be. Planet Princeton was informed in July that the cost of redaction would be $840, based on 20 hours of work by the deputy municipal clerk at a base pay rate of $42 per hour. Planet Princeton later questioned the rate and how it was developed and expressed the opinion that it was excessive. That was the end of the exchange and Planet Princeton never received a response to the objection.
We also never received our records, because is $840 a good use of our money, especially when we think the charge is unfair? The employees at town hall are getting paid with citizen tax dollars to serve the public, and we appreciate how hard they work. In this case the work was already done regardless of whether we paid the fee or not, and the documents are probably sitting on a shelf at town hall, collecting dust. Refusing to lower the fee when we balked at paying it doesn’t benefit anyone given the fact that the work was already done. Or does it? We still do not know what was in those emails.
Why do we bring up this incident? Because last night at the public meeting of the new governing body, the newly elected leaders of the consolidated Princeton were asked to approve new municipal fees for 2013 covering everything from dog licenses to fire safety permits to public records.
In developing the new fees, the current Princeton Borough and Princeton Township fee ordinances were reviewed. Incoming Councilman Patrick Simon questioned why the recommendation was made to the new governing body in every case to choose the higher fee of the two in cases where they were different. He also pointed out that the public records fees didn’t list anything about obtaining public records electronically. “All public information is presumed to be photocopied,” Simon said. “It is unclear what fees should be for electronic information.”
Councilwoman Jo Butler challenged the inclusion of the special service charge for some public records in the proposed fee ordinance. The Borough currently does not charge residents and others a special service charge for obtaining any public records. A special service fee is allowed under state law when a public records request involves an excessive use of time and resources. But it is a gray area, and the state’s Government Records Council and the courts are becoming the testing grounds for what constitutes a reasonable charge.
“The special service charge is something we have not had in the Borough,” Butler said. “I’d be curious to know how often it is used in the township.”
Acting Princeton Township Administrator Kathy Monzo said the Township has had to use the special services charge this year because of several very large requests for information. She estimated that about 150 public records requests have been filed this year and five have involved a special service charge.
“Where the request kicks in is when something is legal or needs to be redacted,” Monzo said. “It is wise to put something in place. We don’t want to be punitive.”
But Butler said she thinks the special service fee could be used as a punitive measure.
“Let’s face it, it is predominantly used against the press,” she said. “Most of the press is not well financed. This is not a fair burden on them. We’ve gotten away without using it in the Borough.”
Monzo said when to apply it is decided on a case by case basis. Princeton Township lawyer Ed Schmierer said the fee usually does not involve the press, but some other person, usually a business. “For example someone is selling soccer shoes and is getting information from the recreation board,” he said. “The clerk makes an inquiry and there is a ton of stuff to go through.”
Butler proposed that the special service charge for public records requests be struck from the fee ordinance though, and Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller also supported the new government adopting the Borough policy of not charging a special service charge.
Township Committeeman Lance Liverman was not so sure it should be removed. “Some of these requests, it’s not like they take 5, 10, or 15 minutes – this is hours and hours of labor,” he said.
“It is very subjective,” Butler said. “But it (the fee) is also not going to diminish the amount of work the clerk is going to have to do.”
The members of the new council agreed the issue could always be looked at again later after best practices are reviewed.
In the meantime, we will leave it to the Government Records Council to decide whether the $840 service fee charge that was levied against Planet Princeton was reasonable. Stay tuned.
Krystal, Why do the emails need to be redacted? They are public documents written by employees. Why wouldn’t all the information be public? What type of information would be blacked-out?
There are some exclusions under state law Tom, such as potential litigation and certain personnel items. It’s hard to imagine 20 hours worth. Even if it is 6,000 pages, from past experience requesting emails, many pages are a sentence or two or contain a repeat thread.
This is idiotic. They could have just given them in electronic form. Furthermore, the cost of doing so should be built into the job. It sure seems like they are trying to discourage anyone from getting the information. Kind of like the poll tax once kept many folks from voting. Someone showed very poor judgement here.
Comments are closed.