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Editorial: Document fees should cover costs, not salaries

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner deserves credit for canceling the sharp fee increase that City Hall recently imposed for copies of public documents. It was the right thing to do in the interest of open, transparent government.

But her decision, and the episode that led to it, should be a signal to the Legislature to re-examine state law governing such fees.

The state’s open public records law allows local governments to recover actual costs directly related to copying records. It sets 15 cents a page as a reasonable default, and that’s what the city of Spokane charged until earlier this year, when, based on liberal assumptions about how long it takes to make a copy and how much the person doing the work is paid, the city came up with a new schedule: No charge for the first 10 copies, but 50 cents a page thereafter. (Documents sent by e-mail are free.)

A few cents may sound trivial, but some records searches include numerous documents, and the cost adds up – especially for a lonely citizen without substantial resources.

When the open records ombudsman for the state attorney general’s office expressed skepticism about the city’s calculations, Verner reconsidered. Effective Monday, the charge will revert to 15 cents a page after the first 10, which will remain free, as will documents provided by e-mail.

Beyond the question of whether it takes a $42,000-a-year clerk a minute to make one copy, we wonder why the fee should include a prorated share of the clerk’s salary at all.

Taxpayers pay public employees’ salaries. You don’t pay a surcharge when you go to City Hall to pay a traffic ticket or a utility bill. You aren’t on a meter when you get information about a building permit.

Obtaining a public document should be no different. And if officials place as much value on accountability as they claim, it should be at least as high a service priority as the other business that takes place across the counters at City Hall.

At present, while the law permits local governments to recoup copying costs, it disallows charging for time spent gathering those records or blotting out confidential information from them. It should go a step further and prohibit charging for salaries that are already paid.

Should the fee cover copy paper? Yes. Toner? Sure. Those are consumables.

Salaries, however, are already paid by the public to its public servants. Once should be enough.


 

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