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Hall loaded with records requests
Increase in volume for 2008 costly, says local government
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Open records law

The statewide law regarding the charge for an open records request is as follows:

50-18-71.

(a) In all cases where an interested member of the public has a right to inspect or take extracts or make copies from any public records, instruments, or documents, any such person shall have the right of access to the records, documents, or instruments for the purpose of making photographs or reproductions of the same while in the possession, custody, and control of the lawful custodian thereof, or his authorized deputy. Such work shall be done under the supervision of the lawful custodian of the records, who shall have the right to adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the work. The work shall be done in the room where the records, documents, or instruments are kept by law. While the work is in progress, the custodian may charge the person making the photographs or reproductions of the records, documents, or instruments at a rate of compensation to be agreed upon by the person making the photographs and the custodian for his services of the services of a deputy in supervising the work.

(b) Where fees for certified copies or other copies or records are specifically authorized or otherwise prescribed by law, such specific fee shall apply.

(c) Where no fee is otherwise provided by law, the agency may charge and collect a uniform copying fee not to exceed 25 [cents] per page.

(d) In addition, a reasonable charge may be collected for search, retrieval, and other direct administrative costs for complying with a request under this Code section. The hourly charge shall not exceed the salary of the lowest paid full-time employee who, in the discretion of the custodian of the records, has the necessary skill and training to perform the request; provided, however, that no charge shall be made for the first quarter hour.

(e) An agency shall utilize the most economical means available for providing copies of public records.

(f) Where information requested is maintained by computer, an agency may charge the public its actual cost of a computer disk or tape onto which the information is transferred and may charge for the administrative time involved as set forth in subsection (d) of this Code section.

Some Hall County officials claim the cost of open government was too high in 2008.

In response to what they call a high volume of open records requests, the Hall County Board of Commissioners is urging state lawmakers to consider changing the law to increase the amount the county can charge per copy.

"Our struggle is sometimes trying to meet the demand," Hall County Administrator Charley Nix said of the amount of labor that goes into filling the open records requests.

Hall County Commission Clerk Heather Bennett, who handles a majority of the county’s records requests, said 2008 was a busy year.

"One of the reasons this year was different was because it was an election year," Bennett said. "People were trying to get information as part of their campaign, things like that."

And with fewer people in the office, making time to pull records became increasingly difficult.

"The county has been on a hiring freeze for a while. We would generally have a deputy clerk here in this office. We are understaffed," Bennett said. "It kind of was the perfect storm as far as creating issues."

County officials were unable to provide a total number of requests which had been received in 2008 or how many hours it had taken to fulfill them because no log is kept of open records requests.

When the Hall County Board of Commissioners brought their requests before state legislators in December, one of the requests was to consider raising the charge for filling open records requests.

The statewide law currently states that local governments are allowed to charge 25 cents per copy and charge an hourly rate for the labor of the lowest paid employee capable of filling the request.

The fee for copying records varies in different states.

Indiana records are a steal at 10 cents per page. In Kansas, the cost per photocopy is also 25 cents. But Colorado
governments can charge up to $1.25 per photocopy.

Though the law states the hourly rate for pulling records should be that of the lowest paid employee capable, Nix said it often needs to be one of the highest paid employees who handles the requests.

"It takes a lot of times the manager to make the decision on what to redact," Nix said.

Nix, who formerly served as the county’s Human Resources director, said there were times in the past when there were so many requests for personnel files that it was difficult to meet the demand.

"There was a period of time when I was in HR where we were extremely busy trying to gather archived records," Nix said. "When there’s a lot of heated things going on it makes it difficult."

Commissioner Bobby Banks thinks the fees should be increased so the county is not losing money by filling open records requests.

"I’m not against open records at all," Banks said. "It’s just not enough for the time (Bennett) takes. It takes more than 25 cents a page. I think we should be compensated properly."

One of the issues that brought on a storm of open records requests from citizen groups and journalists was the discovery in April that the former chairman of the board of tax assessors had misappropriated about $60,000 of county money. County officials estimated they received between five and six record requests a week, mostly from concerned county residents.

"The tax assessor was a big one," Bennett said. "That did create a lot of requests, that sticks out in my mind as a citizen request."

Bennett said while the majority of requests take only 15 minutes or so to complete, they can still distract her from her other duties.

"I would say that the majority of them can be pulled kind of quickly, but the problem is when you get two or three of those in one day," Bennett said. "We don’t budget in time for open records requests. It kind of puts me behind in my other stuff; those are a priority."

And though Bennett said there are times when the requests can be burdensome, she doesn’t want anyone to feel as though the county is trying to hide information.

"We don’t want anyone to think they can’t come to this office and get what they need," she said.

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