Cost of public records go back up

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 27, 2006

The Selma Times Journal

The five-week honeymoon is over.

For five weeks, the Selma City Budget, a 60-page document, cost $9.75, without binder. It was returned to its former charge of $92.50, without binder, on Monday night.

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The city council chose to return costs they had reduced on Dec. 13 – to .25 cents per page up to 25 pages, .10 cents per page beyond 25 – back to the rates they were prior to their vote: $1.25 per page for the first 25 pages of a copied document; any pages beyond 25 are $1.75 per page.

Public documents from Dallas County is charged at a rate of $1 per page.

Alabama’s Sunshine Laws permit a “reasonable cost” to be charged to requestors for providing copies of public information – city budgets, meeting minutes, monthly revenues, et al.

Prior to the December city council vote, a 60 page copy of the Selma city budget cost a requestor $149.75 – $92.50 for the copies and $57+ for a plastic-ring binder.

Attorney Dennis R. Bailey, counsel for the Alabama Press Association, described the charge for a copy of the city’s budget as “on the preposterous side of outrageous.”

“Any charge in addition to actual cost is in violation of state laws,” Bailey said.

State Sunshine Laws prohibit for-profit access to public records. According to state law, government entities must make public documents available for public viewing. They must also provide copies at a reasonable cost, according to an attorney general’s opinion.

The return to the higher rate was voted into effect Monday night by councilpersons Jean Martin, George Evans, Geraldine Allen, Sam Randolph, Johnnie Leashore, Bennie Ruth Crenshaw and Jannie Venter.

The issue was returned to at the behest of Crenshaw. She outlined a reasonable cost figure in December, stating “make the cost decrease when you make more copies – .25 cents per page and 10 cents after 25 copies.”

She and Councilman Cecil Williamson worked in accord to correct the cost to the public for access to city government records and the council voted to amend the charges with a caveat to return and review the onus put upon the clerk’s office, if any, by the improved costs.

On Monday, though, Crenshaw moved to return costs to their prior state.

Williamson suggested a copying burden was not increased in the clerk’s office by reasonable rates by citing “it looks like only three to four requests have been made of the clerk’s office since our last vote.”

Councilperson Johnnie Leashore had requested 873 pages worth of the county’s budget to review in conjunction with the public discussion over library utility costs.

“It is the public information policy of the Dallas County Commission to impose a charge of $1 a page. They would like $873 for the information I requested,” Leashore said.

After his vote Monday night, 873 pages requested from the city of Selma will cost a citizen $1,515.25.

“I’m all for free access to the public for information,” Leashore later said.

Selma’s financial records, city ordinances – save one, and current meeting minutes are still not available online.

“No one seems too concerned with what the county’s charging,” Venter said. “A lot of time and effort are put into it (making copies), paper.

People in my ward don’t get a whole lot of copies. I knew how I was voting and I think it’s reasonable.”

No items requested during the five-week window will be charged the current rate, officials said.

All items requested from Tuesday on will incur the returned-to fees.