HB646 will restrict a citizen’s right to access governmental records. Charging a fee to access public records violates the purpose of the Right-t0-Know Law “to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”
Additionally, this bill has the following deficiencies:
Public body may impose prohibitive fees
to discourage Right to Know requests
If a public body has something to hide, what keeps them from setting a fee at an unreasonable level which effectively deters the public from their right to know under this law? How many abuses of the public trust will go undetected because the officials can establish fees which prohibit concerned citizens from discovering the truth? Access that is too expensive is access denied. The only way all citizens can have equal access is by providing free access to inspect records.
While charges MAY be waived for inability to pay, the procedure for making that determination is not defined and it would, most likely, result in the delay of making records available past the required 5 business days of the request.
Requester bears costs of poor records management
Taxpayers already pay for the creation and storage of governmental records. While the public body is responsible for storing records in a manner that facilities easy retrieval, some may not. The citizen making a Right to Know request should not bear the cost of poor records management, storage, and retrieval.
Inability to audit fees estimated and charged
Estimated costs vary and are not fixed. As such, the estimates are at the discretion of public officials and employees which allows for unfettered discrimination. How will actual time be documented to support costs charged?
Inability to appeal fees charged
If the fees charged are deemed excessive, there is no abatement procedure. How does someone appeal the fees charged or request an abatement? Will the Right to Know request be completed within the necessary time limits even though the estimate is being appealed?
A representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate. All persons are entitled to public information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officers and employees. Providing persons with such information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officers and employees.
Everyone has the right to know what their government is doing, and that includes the right to inspect public records. However, some believe the general taxpayers should not bear this expense for the few who exercise this right, and particularly for the exceptional few who may abuse it. This argument uses the exceptional scenario to control and detrimentally limit the vast majority of good faith right to know requests.
Why should the requester bear the sole burden of costs when the information requested is in the public interest, contributes to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the government, and allows voters to make better informed decisions?