City document copy charges too high

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The Alabama Open Records Study Task Force held its second meeting Tuesday in Montgomery.

You may not realize it, but that task force meeting could affect you in the future.

The group is charged with two main objectives: Clearly identifying the exemptions of the open records law, and the need for a procedure of obtaining records with a plan to put in action if the records are denied.

While this group’s efforts will do much to help journalists in the state have access to these public records, it’s also important for every citizen.

Alabama’s basic public records inspection statute, Ala. Code

36-12-40, passed in 1915, states: “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”

Exceptions include banking records, juvenile court records, hospital records, probation records, identity of Medicaid recipients, and reports concerning suspected cases of certain diseases.

This task force will attempt to further define those exceptions.

In the meantime, citizens shouldn’t take no for an answer when attempting to obtain documents such as a police report (the front page), city salaries, budgets, even memos from one public official to another.

Recently, when an employee of The Selma Times-Journal went to obtain a copy of the city’s newly-passed budget, city of Selma employees were polite and helpful, as well as knowledgeable about the documents.

But, they charged a fee (imposed by the city, not the employees) that seems out of line with what other cities around the state charge.

In fact, some cities in Alabama, as well as some other public offices, such as water boards and county government, don’t charge a fee at all for copies of public documents.

We are not suggesting that the city of Selma not cover its cost for such documents. But, $1.25 per page, even $1.75 per page over 25 pages, seems unreasonably high.

The law is clear that the cost of copies should be reasonable, just to cover costs.

In a city like Selma, many average citizens would be hard-pressed to afford to pay close to $100 for a copy of their city’s budget.

That makes the cost unreasonable and city officials should reduce the charge to something truly reasonable and affordable for the average citizen of Selma.