Should a citizen have pay $8 to make a copy of a two-page police report? Sounds outrageous, but agencies across the county and the state are charging more and more for copies of public records.
Just recently, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office raised the rate for reports from $7.50 to $8 — even if the report is only one page long. The Payson Police Department wants to boost the amount it charges the public to copy a public document from $5 to $7 starting in July.
Turns out, many agencies have started charging flat fees for records, which worries
experts on keeping public records available to citizens.
David Cuillier, director and associate professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, said agencies defend the practice because the law only stipulates copying rates are “reasonable.”
The law prevents agencies from charging for anything beyond the cost of making a copy. Private copying firms often charge 15 cents a page. Many agencies charge $1 a page — or sometimes $8 for a report even when it’s only a page or two.
“So it becomes an argument over what is reasonable,” he said. “I think it’s a rip-off and I don’t think it’s defensible, but they do it anyway.”
Legislators enacted Arizona’s Public Records Law to guarantee residents access to nearly all records held in public offices, with a handful of exceptions. This means the mayor’s e-mails are open for inspection as well as completed police investigations.
Citizens can inspect records for free, but getting a copy has become increasingly costly. Take for example an Arizona Department of Public Safety police report on the rollover accident that claimed a girl’s life last year at Corvair Curve south of town. With DPS charging $1 a page, the report ran $317. DPS, however, is one of the few agencies that allow requesters to use their smart phones to take photographs of reports. The cell phone camera in effect functions as a scanner, to produce a copy of the document. Attorney Catherine Marquoit, assistant Arizona ombudsman for public access, said citizens can use a cell phone or camera to copy a report, but many agencies don’t know that. She added it would be hard-pressed for an agency to charge a citizen who doesn’t use the agency’s equipment for making a copy.
When the Roundup asked the Gila County Sheriff’s Office if it would adopt a similar policy regarding smart phones, Chief Deputy Johnny Sanchez said he did not feel comfortable with such a practice, according to the message relayed by Misty Allinson, with GCSO’s records division.
Marquoit said the ombudsman’s office tries to educate public officials and citizens on the public record law.
Under the law, an agency can charge a fee for records that covers the clerk’s time needed to make the copy and the cost of using the agency’s copier. It cannot charge for the time it takes a clerk to search for the record, according to the law. Moreover, agencies cannot charge the victim of a crime for a report.
Marquoit said a flat fee doesn’t necessarily violate the law. “It depends on the circumstances,” she said. “We recommend a per-page fee and discourage flat fees.”
She added the statute does not provide a lot of guidance when it comes to defining a “reasonable” fee.
Cuillier says if a commercial copying service, like Kinko’s, charges 10 cents per page and can make a profit, it ought to cost a government agency less to make a copy.
The Roundup requested the copy service contracts for both the Town of Payson and the GCSO to calculate the cost per copy, but had not received them as of press time.
Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd also did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment on record costs.
Allinson, however, said the agency would not charge someone $8 for a one-page police report.
She said they would likely only charge 25 cents for a one-page report. But two pages? Allinson would not say.
The ombudsman’s office encourages agencies to charge anywhere from 10 to 50 cents a page, but not a flat fee.
One way around outrageous record costs is using a camera to take photographs of documents.
Smart phones with apps specifically designed for scanning documents have made it much easier to make copies. Marquoit said no law specifically deals with using a camera to copy a document, but when in question, the statute stipulates open access to citizens.
“Arizona public policy favors open government,” said Patrick Shannahan, Arizona ombudsman in a release.
Since agencies can only charge for the cost of making a copy not for providing the record to inspect, the law provides no basis for an agency to charge people for making copies while inspecting the record.
But because public officials often don’t understand the law, Marquoit said she spends a lot of time on education and mediation.
“We really push educating the folks at the agencies,” she said, “about what they are required to do and what they are not required to do.”
She said most agencies are only trying to do the right thing.
The Arizona Ombudsman’s Office works with agencies and citizens to help untangle the web of public access. The office offers open meeting and record workshops for state agencies.
The title page of the office’s public record law handbook starts with a quote from President Harry Truman, “Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.”
Cuillier said, “when you price things so high, it’s essentially pricing people out of their government. This is not fair to those without means,” he said.
Moreover, the Founding Fathers clearly believed government ought to provide information on its activities for free. “That’s why they made copies of congressional records and shipped them out to the frontier for people to read for free,” he said. “That’s why they created federal depository libraries to provide government records to the people — for free. The thinking was that people already paid for the creation of the records through their taxes, and that they should not have to pay again.
He said many agencies try to make money off public records, but in an age when almost all documents are electronic, it makes no sense to print and charge for them.
Lastly, he said creating barriers to government information disenfranchises citizens and makes them less trusting of government.
“At a time when people are highly skeptical of government, I would think agencies would bend over backward to provide information.”