N.H. Bill Would Allow Government Agencies To Charge For Public Records

Mar 11, 2015

A bill going before the House of Representatives Wednesday is getting strong opposition advocates of open government.

The legislation would allow cities and towns to charge people for the time it takes to respond to public records requests.

The bill goes before the House with a favorable recommendation from the judiciary committee.

Democratic state Representative Pat Long is the bill’s prime sponsor. He’s also an alderman in Manchester.

He joins Morning Edition to talk about his proposal.

Media organizations have been vocal in their opposition to this bill, but Durham town administrator Todd Selig put it this way: Those working in government are undertaking the people’s business, so helping to provide them with access to those records is part of the job.

How do you respond to that?

I do agree with that statement. It is our responsibility to make sure the public receives any information they need to receive. This bill isn’t about getting the information. The bill is about the cost of the information and how long it takes to get that information.

So you don’t have any concerns about this impeding access to public records?

I don’t. If this bill passes, it gives a waiver for any individual with the inability to pay.

That is subject to interpretation, though. There doesn’t seem to be any measures for what constitutes an inability to pay.

The burden is on the individual. I can think of somebody in Manchester who’s on Social Security and disability that requests this information and also lives in public housing. I would say that he would get this information without paying.

Your bill would allow government officials to charge up front what they think it will cost. Why not wait until the request has been fulfilled and then charge?

If the cost exceeds $50, this bill says that we can charge up front. Because what happens is we get requests – 10, 15 years ago you’d get specific requests, people were specific in what they needed. It’s getting to the point now where it’s very broad. If I need some information that was discussed in January, I’m asking for October through March just to make sure I don’t miss anything in January. It becomes onerous and the taxpayer pays a lot of money to produce these records. I think this discussion needed to happen.

Do we know how much it is costing the taxpayer and municipalities for these kinds of requests?

I had requested in Manchester a list of costs that we have had, but I haven’t gotten it. I just know of a couple of requests that took our IT department a day to retrieve. It took our solicitor’s department another day or two to redact the personal information, and then of course the clerk’s office copying them. That’s a substantial amount of money.

If part of this is to deter people from making frivolous requests, aren’t you penalizing those who are making justified and reasonable requests?

I don’t think we’re penalizing anybody. The bottom line is whether a taxpayer has the right to be reimbursed for this information. I believe it does.

How do you feel the chances are for the bill?

I think the chances are good coming 14-4 out of committee. I think it’s unfair to say the maintaining of transparency in government, that this brings that back. I don’t see that at all. I see this as we’ve become more transparent in the last 15 years. Now it’s a matter of looking at how much you want the taxpayer to pay. Of course the Union Leader is going to say they shouldn’t have to pay for it. My question is whether the taxpayer is in favor of that. Do want to produce these records and have the taxpayer pay for it? I say no.