Public record charges vary by agency

Parkersburg considering increase to rates

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PARKERSBURG — Government agencies are allowed to charge for copies of public records, but the amounts vary by location and even department.

The rates charged by the Wood County Clerk’s office — $1.50 for the first two pages and $1 for subsequent pages — are established by West Virginia code. For most other cases, state law says a “public body may establish fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it for its actual cost in making reproductions of records.”

That does not include a “search or retrieval fee” or an hourly rate for the time a worker spends preparing those documents. A 2014 West Virginia Supreme Court decision allowed such fees, but the Legislature passed a law prohibiting them the next year.

Under the law, people can also review public documents without receiving copies.

The greatest cost to a public body in complying with Freedom of Information Act requests likely is the time spent gathering and copying the items, said Parkersburg City Attorney Joe Santer, especially in certain periods where the city has been “inundated” with requests.

“But so be it. That’s the nature of the beast,” he said.

The city does the public’s business, so the documents belong to them and charges should be reasonable, Santer said.

Parkersburg City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to increase its fees for public documents, originally set in 1984. Some items — like the annual budget document, audit report and five-year capital program — have set fees. All “non-scheduled” items have been charged at 10 cents a page for the last 33 years. Under the revised ordinance, which will be up for final reading on March 28, that would move to 50 cents a page.

Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl said she initiated the effort to update fees for public records because it hadn’t been changed in so long. She made a motion during Tuesday’s meeting to amend the ordinance to match the county clerk rates, but withdrew it after Santer explained they cannot charge to cover employees’ time.

On Wednesday, Santer said he believes 50 cents a page is a reasonable rate, but raising it beyond that could limit people’s access. For example, a 50-page document under the county’s state-mandated rate would cost $49.50.

“For many people, it might be difficult, or even impossible, to get,” Santer said.

The proposed ordinance was amended on a 6-3 vote, with Kuhl and Councilmen Dave McCrady and John Reed opposed, to reduce the cost of police accident and general offense reports from $20 to $15. Currently the price is $3 for accident reports and $10 for criminal reports.

“For some people, 20 bucks is more than two hours of labor,” Councilman Eric Barber said.

The new ordinance keeps a provision allowing financial agencies, public boards and commissions and media representatives to be exempt from the fees for most documents.

“That’s going to give the greatest access to the public’s knowledge,” Santer said of the media exemption.

State law says that if records exist in electronic form, and the requester asks, they can be provided in that way. Santer said the city has not charged to email electronic records. If it’s requested that records be downloaded onto a CD, there is a $1.50 charge, he said.

“And we put an awful lot of stuff on the website,” Santer said, noting there is no charge for access there.

Other cities, county agencies

* In Vienna, the per-page charge is 25 cents, said Shawn Barr, FOIA coordinator for the city. The city had included an hourly rate but removed that when state law prohibited it, she said.

The same charge applies if someone requests records electronically, Barr said.

* Williamstown charges $7 for police reports but otherwise doesn’t get a lot of FOIA requests, City Clerk Susan Knopp said.

“If people want a copy of an ordinance or something, we usually just give it to them,” she said. “If it got to be where it was a big cost, we’d have to look at (a charge), I guess.”

* Prices vary in Wood County offices. The county administrator’s office charges $1 a page. Recordings of meetings can be provided on CD for $5.

* Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes said the state-mandated pricing applies whether records are requested in paper or electronically. But he noted a great deal of information is available on the county website, woodcountywv.com, at no charge.

* The Wood County Sheriff’s Department follows the clerk’s guidelines, with $1.50 for the first two pages and $1 for each one after. Accident and criminal reports are $15 each.

* The Circuit Clerk’s office charges $1 a page for copies. The office does not keep case records electronically and so does not provide them in that format.

* In Magistrate Court, the cost is 25 cents per page or 50 cents if the copy is certified. Faxes are $2 a page. There is no charge for emailed records because there is no cost to reproduce them, Magistrate Court Clerk Paulina Yearego said.

* Wood County Prosecutor Pat Lefebure said many FOIAs his office receives can be fulfilled by other agencies or are exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act because they relate to ongoing investigations. If someone does request information from a closed investigation, “most of the time we try to just provide it so they can just come in and view the documents, so that there is no charge,” he said.

* Like West Virginia, Ohio law requires public records to be made available promptly to anyone who requests them. At Marietta Municipal Court, requests are received daily, Clerk of Courts Emily Heddleston said.

The cost of public records is adopted by the Ohio Rules of Superintendence for the Courts of Ohio and was last revised in November 2012. The charge for paper copies is 5 cents per page, and certified paper copies are 25 cents per page. The charge for electronic files downloaded to a compact disc is $5 per disc. There is no charge for documents emailed.

* City of Marietta Safety Service Director Jonathan Hupp said copies are 5 cents a page, something that was established by City Council. He asked four years ago to increase the fee to 25 cents, a request that council denied.

* Washington County Commissioners last adopted a public records policy in 2007, and the cost is 10 cents per page or $1 for a CD. Emailed records are free.

* The Washington County Sheriff’s Office makes many records available online at washingtoncountysheriff.org. Jail inmate records from 1999 to 2015, bad check records from 2000 to 2016, as well as an active warrants list, last updated Feb. 28, are viewable online for free. A sex offender database is available through the sheriff’s website and links to the county website, washingtongov.org. There, a searchable list of individuals by offense is available.

“The cost is determined by our department, usually 35 cents for a disc, 10 cents for a copy and, if we have the electronic files available, to email is free,” Sheriff Larry Mincks said.

* Washington County Clerk of Courts Brenda Wolfe said the cost for copies is 10 cents a page or $1 for certified copies.

“If I can email the information, if it’s just a one-page divorce document or something, then there is no charge,” she said.

The cost is determined by the agency, with recommendations taken from the Ohio Clerk of Courts Association.

(Erin O’Neill contributed to this story.)

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