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Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.

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County cannot charge flat fee to review records because it is not true cost

If someone requests a copy of a permit or approved building plans that are stored off site or on site, the county charges a $25 fee plus cost of copies at 50 cents per copy.

According to the Freedom of Information Act, this is not acceptable. Government entities are only allowed to charge for actual costs of getting you the material you want.

 

You don’t need to have copies that cost money. You can ask to view the document in person. In realistic terms, it shouldn’t cost anything for a county employee to grab a file from a cabinet. But charging a $25 flat fee to review public records is just not in spirit with the FOIA laws. The county may even raise the fee to $55.

The county is basically saying that the employee who is making the copy for you is paid $25 an hour or more, and that it will take an hour to get you that copy of the permit or building plan. If these new fees are approved, the fee rises to $55. Does it really take an hour to make a copy of something? 

 

Oftentimes, government charges people 50 cents or more for copies of public records. This also could be argued as being in violation of FOIA  because it is not the true cost to make a copy of a piece of paper. It’s been long argued that the true cost of copying a piece of paper is like 7 to 10 cents.

I bring this up because tomorrow the Board of Supervisor has a work session on what the county should charge for building fees. When reviewing the document, that is when I saw the flat $25 fee to see permits, building plans and other public records.

 

Here is what the FOIA law says:

F. A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in  accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body  shall impose any extraneous, intermediary or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the  general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general  business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not  exceed the actual cost of duplication. The public body may also make a reasonable  charge for the cost incurred in supplying records produced from a geographic information  system at the request of anyone other than the owner of the land that is the subject of  the request. However, such charges shall not exceed the actual cost to the public body in  supplying such records, except that the public body may charge, on a pro rata per acre  basis, for the cost of creating topographical maps developed by the public body, for such  maps or portions thereof, which encompass a contiguous area greater than 50 acres. All  charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the  request of the citizen.

G. Public records maintained by a public body in an electronic data processing system,  computer database, or any other structured collection of data shall be made available to a  requester at a reasonable cost, not to exceed the actual cost in accordance with subsection  F. When electronic or other databases are combined or contain exempt and nonexempt  records, the public body may provide access to the exempt records if not otherwise  prohibited by law, but shall provide access to the nonexempt records as provided by this  chapter.   

 

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Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/spotsygovt/2009/12/07/county-cannot-charge-flat-fee-to-review-records-because-it-is-not-true-cost/

  • tpkeller

    Unfortunately, many local governments think they are exempt from the state laws which set the rules on how they may function. This happens in many areas of government.

    Depending on the arrogance and ego of the officials involved, the effort to fix such problems can range from a friendly “here’s what you are doing wrong” conversation all the way up to legal action to force them to comply with state law.

    Some state laws have been so widely abused in the past that they have provisions that allow the courts to award the plaintiffs their costs and attorney’s fees after they win. (See the Code of Virginia § 15.2-915 Section C for an example, which was just added last year.)

    I have no idea what it will take in this case, but I urge you to keep this story in the public eye. I have very little tolerance for public servants who lose sight of who their real bosses are, and who think they are above the law.

  • dantelvock

    Actually, it is not common from my experience. I’ve never been asked by a local government to pay a flat fee to access records and if I were to be asked that I would be challenging it.

    The Courts don’t charge any extra fee to view court records.

  • MAVRICKinc

    You would bring up the subject of FOIA. Try getting some feed back from Mr. Hill and our Education Board.

    There is the Southern Fried Freedom of Information Act, that only serves to obfuscate or the FOIA we have come to rely on when the truth is at stake.

    Spotsylvania County’s Ernie Pennington is in charge of all things associated with FOIA. I can remember asking for my Code Compliance file that was kept on our real property by Lewis Watts and the Department of Code Compliance.

    The County could supply basic details but not their privileged information County Attorney deemed beyond public inspection, including me.

    What this information cost is really of no relevance. What matters is that the good stuff is hidden from the public, and Judge David H. Beck will tell you so.

    How much does the truth cost? A lot more than Dr. Hill and the Spotsylvania County’s Board of Education ever thought possible; $20,000+. And, that doesn’t include the cost of copying the record, or more precisely, part of a record that wouldn’t even get you to first base.

    The cost and value of the FOIA is not found in photocopy expenses. It’s the cost and value of the information that will never make the light of day.

  • lgross

    The FOIA obstructionism is alive and well across Virginia.. take a look-see at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government website
    where one can read chapter and verse.. sometimes amateurish attempts.. and sometimes very successful attempts at violating
    the spirit and intent of the law.

    I see this as a continuing battle where the public must be vigilant and assertive or else those who favor more closed government
    - will win.. again and again..

    but the monetary obstructionism is a tried and true technique… that many localities continue to use unless challenged by
    someone with legal resources ( such as the FLS).

    The average citizen is going to be treated will less deference unless they believe he is capable of mounting an effective legal
    challenge…

  • tpkeller

    My reference was to a general disregard for state laws that govern the actions of cities and counties, not the one specific example given in your post.

    It is interesting to note that the city Clerk of the Court office also charges 50 cents per page to print or copy court records. It might be interesting to see what the Clerk’s reaction would be to reading the nitty gritty of the law.

  • lgross

    in Spotsylvania? I’m just asking.. I don’t really
    know…. I am somewhat familiar with their more
    recent tendencies to try to restrict information.

  • tpkeller

    I live in the city, and I rarely interact with anyone in Spotsylvania, so I don’t know of any. As I noted in my first post, one of the most often abused laws is the firearms preemption law, which prohibits localities from enacting their own rules concerning firearms. Many locations refused to remove their illegal laws from the books so the GA added some bite to the law by exposing the localities to potential liability to cover court costs and expenses of those doing the suing.

    I have read that this also sometimes spills over to the CHP application process, with some locations requiring additional paperwork to be submitted, which is also against the law.

    Almost always these things can be resolved once you point out to those involved that they are literally in violation of the law, but as noted, sometimes it seems they don’t care.

  • lgross

    thanks. I’m not even sure what a firearms
    preemption law is…

  • MAVRICKinc

    Whether anyone of nobel intentions or their subordinates are violating the law is nothing more than a rebuttable presumption, soon to be lost in another idle conversation that rises only to the levels of communication protocols that are best defined by more polite conversation.

    The preemptive strike is something only those in power can weild to their satisfaction, not yours.
    Just how big is your stick? If it’s just words of indignation, pointing fingers, and waiving banners about how WE are being treated by THEM, you will always be in the tall grass and without a compass to direct you where you want to go, but can’t, for want of a level playing field and surrounded by walls intended to keep you out of the hair of those WE chose to rule US.

    Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not exist on this playing field. In our very small way, we will continue to cry out, and shout out our concerns from the bleachers, while those of nobel intentions play the game, and officiated by those running from one end of the field with blinders on.

    Maybe TP should get out more and mingle with the masses outside the boundaries of Fredericksburg. Not much difference from one boundary line to the next, but at least there is a little more room to breath, and collect our next thought and throw it at the same wall, to see if it sticks or just falls to the ground without much more notice than it takes to read this blog, and move on to the next.

    Until we put FOIA text where it belongs, WE will always be paying 50 cents a page, and more, because we’ll never know the difference.

    So, what really costs 3 cents per page in ink, only makes me wonder where the other 47 cents went or goes toward, in violation of a law, no one really cares about, understands, or has the time to even put 5 minutes aside in their day, to even inquire about what’s legal and what’s not.

    It’s the stuff that defines US and THEM, without question or debate.