State law outlines that public records may be obtained for 10 cents a page (with a double sided single page counting as two pages).
Uh, no. Government is never that easy or cut-and-dry.
For example, you’ll see many law enforcement offices —especially — that charge $5 a page for accident reports. There’s no specific law against that — most people only ever have one accident report they need in their lifetime and $5 won’t break them — but you can dispute the cost.
The Texas Administration Code outlines the 10-cent-a-page rule. The administration code is a guide for public entities — so for example, they tell a city or a police department what type of records they should be keeping and how to manage their personnel, giving them guidelines for running their entity.
However, the Texas public records statutes state, “Agencies are allowed to charge reasonable fees for search and copying charges. Each agency will have its fees posted in their regulations. Costs may include time charged for agency personnel (clerical and professional), computer use and duplication fees.”
There’s the rub.
They are free to charge you for their personnel time and any expense in obtaining the record if it’s not readily available — say, they have to drive to a warehouse to sift through old records to find it.
If they intend to charge you $40 or more, you can ask for an itemized report of their expenses.
At the Freedom of Information conference I attended last week, we were told about what happened in a Fort Worth case a year ago. A newspaper asked for police reports from a certain area and time period. The police department said it would take four years and $120,000 to produce the reports. When the paper asked for an itemized list, they were able to dispute this and mediate it with the department directly. They got the reports two days later for $100 on a CD.
Don’t be afraid to ask why you’re having to spend a certain amount of money — and know that the government entity should tell you, BEFORE you pay, how much they will charge you for the record. If it’s too much, then you can walk away.
The state public records law also notes, “No advance payment is required unless the requester has failed to pay fees in a timely fashion or the expected fee will exceed $250.”
However, most public entities will want you to pay before they give you the records.
And, once you have them, you can turn around and try to “return” them for a refund. If you paid $100 for the records, then they are yours to keep and there’s no going back.
Be sure that before they get your money, you look through them to verify that these are the records you want so you won’t be out the money you paid.
Additionally, in most cases, you should be able to preview the record to see if it’s what you want.
Sometimes government entities will tell you that they don’t have it readily available for you to see. But, some things, such as budgets, are printed out and you should be able to sift through those in advance.
A good resource for sorting out expenses and helping you figure out how to obtain public records is the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Visit them at http://foift.org or call 512-377-1575.
Tomorrow, I’ll expand on the foundation and other resources for helping you obtain records.
— Margarita Venegas, Editor