March Shine On – Monthly Chat with First Amendment Foundation
Barbara Petersen with the Florida First Amendment Foundation is back! Last month she addressed the time frame an agency has to respond to a public information record request. This month, we ask her why certain agencies are allowed to charge more than $0.15 a page for copies and what, if anything the public can do about it.
Let us know what you could use some help with, when it comes to the Florida Sunshine Laws. You can leave questions and comments below or send them to Lynn Walsh, Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.
SPJ South Florida: When requesting court documents why are some public agencies (like the courts) allowed to charge $1 per page rather than the standard 15 cents a page? That seems like an outrageous amount for access to public information.
Barbara Petersen: Although Florida’s constitution guarantees a right of access to court records, those records fall under ch. 28, F.S., and Judicial Rule of Administration 2.420 and not ch. 119, our public records law. Unfortunately, ch. 28 authorizes clerks of court to charge $1/page for copies of records contained in a court file. Rule 2.420 makes a distinction between court records and administrative records, and stipulates that the fees for a court’s administrative records must be no greater than those authorized under s. 119.07(4) – in other words, 15 cents a page. Finally, it’s important to note that some clerks of court act as the records clerk for the county commission – in those cases, the clerk of court can’t charge more than the fees authorized under ch. 119.
SPJ South Florida: What can an individual do if they feel the cost estimate for documents is excessive? Is there any course of action that an individual can take?
Barbara Petersen: When making a public record request, always ask for a detailed estimate of the fees associated with the request in writing – this way, the requestor can decide whether to narrow a request because of the fees. Also, if an agency charges for extensive use of its resources, ask to see the definition of “extensive” and a breakdown in charges as well as the agency’s public records access policy.
An extensive use charge must be reasonable and must be based on actual costs incurred; if charging for extensive use of personnel time, the charge can be no greater than the hourly rate, including benefits, of the lowest paid person capable of performing the task.
Not all agencies will have a public records access policy, but an agency that tries to impose an extensive use fee must have a definition of “extensive.” It’s important to remember that an agency can require that fees for copies of public records be paid in advance of producing the requested records. If you have questions about fees, you can call the First Amendment Foundation’s FOI Hotline for help: (850) 222-3518.
Click here In case you missed last month’s chat.
Answers to these questions and many more, including questions about application of Florida’s open meetings law, can be found in the 2013 Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual, which is now available in both a print edition and electronically. Go to the First Amendment Foundation website, www.floridafaf.org, and click on FAF Store for information on how to order the manual.
Barbara A. Petersen, President First Amendment Foundation
A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and Florida State University College of Law, Barbara A. Petersen is president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. Before taking her current position in 1995, Petersen was staff attorney for the Joint Committee on Information Technology Resources of the Florida Legislature, where she worked exclusively on public records legislation and issues. A passionate advocate of the public’s right to oversee its government, Petersen is the author of numerous reports and articles on open government issues. She currently sits on the board of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, having served as its president and treasurer, and was recently appointed to the Integrity Florida board of directors. Petersen served as chair of Florida’s Commission on Open Government Reform.