The Colorado Press Association has awarded state Sen. Minority Leader Andy McElhany and Rep. Anne McGihon with “Friend of the First” [Amendment] awards for sponsoring a bill last year reducing the costs of copying public documents to 25 cents a page, max. But some bureaucrats have found a loophole around that cost, expanding search and retrieval fees that can quickly add up. McElhany, a Republican from Colorado Springs, and McGihon, a Denver Democrat, teamed up last year to sponsor Senate Bill 45, designed to reduce the amount that government agencies can charge the public for public information. A 38-year-old law placed Colorado on top nationwide for the amount that agencies – from municipal to county to state – could charge – up to $1.25 per page.
Noting that FedEx Kinko’s, for example, charges only 7 cents a copy and still manages to make money, McElhany and McGihon’s bill initially capped the per-page cost at 10 cents a page. But after lobbying by several state and municipal organizations, as well as school districts, the final bill, which was signed into law, capped the per-page cost at 25 cents.
At its annual awards banquet last weekend, the Colorado Press Association recognized both lawmakers for their efforts to make obtaining public information more affordable.
Joe Megyesy, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said McElhany was inspired to act when reading about the high costs in the Fort Collins Coloradoan two years ago – part of an Associated Press project to determine the costs and difficulties of obtaining public information in communities across Colorado.
“[McElhany] agreed that these were exorbitant fees for records that belonged to the people,” Megyesy said.
The original bill included a provision that allowed for fees “in a specified amount” that could be tacked on, “if the request exceeds a specified number of pages or if the pages to be copied are located in multiple buildings or in a remote storage facility.”
That wording, removed from the bill during a committee hearing, was designed, Megyesy said, to allow government officials to charge fees if they had to, say, retrieve them from an offsite storage facility – not for the hassle of walking over to a file cabinet and pulling out the information.
The ability for government agencies to charge search and retrieval fees is not a new thing. But, after last year’s 25-cent cap, it appears that bureaucrats are responding by establishing higher fee schedules – that is, additional costs for public documents, from the Department of Human Services to the Colorado Department of Revenue, which established a new written policy for public documents in January.
A Feb. 22 Associated Press report, titled “Want to see your public records? Be prepared to pay up” examined a number of government agencies who charge high fees for public documents.
The Colorado Department of Revenue, for example, charges $15 an hour to retrieve records “if that effort requires an hour or more,” the AP reported. “It’ll cost $28 an hour if you want your information converted to a computer disk.”
“The cost and availability of public records varies widely among state agencies,” noted the report.
Said Evan Dreyer, himself a former longtime journalist who is currently the spokesman for Gov. Bill Ritter, who oversees 19 separate agencies: ”Our attorneys said that request is overly broad. Each agency maintains different records and the policies are different.”
The retrieval costs don’t just apply to regular citizens. “Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, said the state Department of Transportation tried to charge her $350 for public documents she needed to help a constituent,” reported the AP. “Green refused to pay and didn’t get the documents.”
On Tuesday, McGihon was unavailable to comment on the trend. But McElhany, through his spokesman Megyesy, indicated that he is certainly willing to revisit the search-fee issue and determine if further legislation to keep costs of public information affordable is required.
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at The Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org