Local government transparency
Ryan Summerlin May 27, 2014
How can the public access government records and what sort of fees should be charged? That’s a topic the Summit County Council grappled with on Wednesday, May 21, at the Sheldon Richins Building at Kimball Junction.
Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) deals with those issues and any system Summit County sets up needs to be in compliance with the act.
Helen Strachan, deputy county attorney for Summit County, proposed a resolution to the council outlining GRAMA request (similar to a federal Freedom of Information Act or FOIA request) processes and fees. The council responded by lowering some of the proposed fees and requesting additional language about waiver of fees in certain situations.
The Park Record expressed concern to the council members and county manager when the proposed resolution was released. Editor Nan Chalat Noaker wrote of a desire to ensure we have a "transparent, easily accessible system" and pointed out that certain fees appeared to be "arbitrarily high."
Council members expressed concern Wednesday that the county be as transparent as possible.
"I just want to say publicly that basically everything we do," said County Manager Bob Jasper, "we’ve try to get out there, on the web, so anybody can have access, so then they don’t even have to file a GRAMA request."
The resolution includes an itemized fee schedule for various records requests. They range from simple black and white copies to police dispatch tapes to IT requests. In many cases, when county staff need to spend more than 15 minutes handling a request, the proposal call for charging the requestor for that staff time.
Strachan said that, regardless of who actually fulfills a records request, "the hourly wage of the lowest-paid person who can handle that request," would be billed.
The proposed resolution would allow fees to be waived in some cases, and council member Dave Ure requested that certain language be edited to be as clear as possible.
"I think this is a topic that we have to go the extra mile to clarify, both for the county government and for the public, so that they know exactly where they can go," he said. Ure seemed uncomfortable with some of the flexibility built into the resolution regarding waiver of fees.
"We need to make sure both sides are covered and that abuse doesn’t take place," he said.
Strachan explained that GRAMA allows for waiver of fees for public records in two instances.
"Departments would have discretion to waive those charges if one is acting in the public interest and not for personal reasons," she said. This "public interest" language would cover many requests from media such as The Park Record.
The other instance when fees may be waived is when an individual is requesting records about him or herself "when an individual is the subject of a record," Strachan said.
Chris Robinson was the council member most critical of the proposed resolution and fee schedule.
"I don’t think we want to leave a lot of subjectivity in this if we can help it," he said. In addition to waiver of fees, county staff members may at their discretion accept a written request in the text of an email rather than demanding an actual GRAMA form be submitted.
Robinson pointed out that several of the proposed fees appear to be unreasonably high. He went over the proposed fees for simple black and white copies (25 cents per page) as well as for records transmitted via facsimile (75 cents per page). He asked why the facsimile fee was so high and was told it is due to "long distance" charges.
"Long distance is a thing of the past. I mean it’s dirt cheap," Robinson said. "It’s not 75 cents a page I can promise you it’s not anywhere near that.
"Delivering by fax ought to be cheaper than a photo copy," he said.
In compiling the fee schedule, Strachan said "I looked at what our departments are currently charging, and I also looked at about four jurisdictions on the Wasatch Front and Back."
In light of the council’s comments, Strachan said she would lower certain fees 25 to 15 cents for black and white copies, for instance and add language specifying the instances in which fees can be waived. The council intends to vote on the resolution at its next meeting on May 28.