State Ombudsman questions City of Spokane’s new public records copying charges
The week after we published this story, we obtained a newly revised public records policy from the city that reinstates the 15 cents per page charge for regular, black & white copies. The new policy, which still has conspicuously high charges for other records, including audio and video records, is set to take effect on Monday, June 15th.–tc)
In a letter sent last week to Mayor Mary Verner, state Assistant Attorney General Tim Ford is asking the city to reconsider its recent price hike in charges for copying public records. Ford is the AG office’s Open Government Ombudsman.
Ford’s May 27th letter to Verner follows recent complaints about the high prices Spokane records requesters are now being asked to pay for paper copies, the price of which was raised, this spring, from 15 cents per page to 50 cents per page.
“Most cities charge a flat rate of $0.15 per page, and commercial businesses charge about $0.10 a page for photocopies and still manage to make a profit,” Ford wrote. “The City of Spokane’s method for calculating its copying charges are [sic]unique. It assumes that a person with gross wages and benefits of more than $62,000 will be making photocopies. It also assumes that it takes three minutes to copy the first page and one minute to copy each additional page.”
The 15 cents per page that Ford referenced in his letter is actually the default copying charge included in the state’s public records law, RCW 42.56. But the loophole is that agencies that want to charge more can, if they take the time to actually demonstrate why their actual costs are higher and publish their calculations.
The City of Spokane, for at least the past decade, has charged no more than 15 cents a page for paper copies of records. Not only was the 15 cents per page fee in line with the state default rate, but it was comparable to what many federal agencies (including the Departments of Energy, Justice, Interior, and Homeland Security) charge for copies in response to Freedom of Information requests. Last December, for example, the Energy Department proposed raising its fee to 20 cents a page from five cents a page. Spokane County’s general policy is to charge 15 cents per page, but it allows county departments to charge more if their demonstrated costs are higher.
According to Spokane City Clerk Terri Pfister, the city initiated the process that led to the April 14th price increase after the Spokane Police Department recommended that City Hall bring its public records charges in line with what the joint city/county records division charges for local law enforcement records. (Under the city’s policies, law enforcement, the municipal court and libraries are allowed to set their own fees).
The new law enforcement records fees were approved by County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich in January of 2008 and then by Mayor Verner last August. The law enforcement records are now charged at 90 cents for the first page, and 30 cents for each additional page, with $15 charged for each CD or DVD.
Pfister said City Hall was unable to align itself with the police records costs because of differences in personnel wage rates between the people assigned to do the copying. In City Hall, the city’s formula assumes, it would be a Clerk III, making $62,197 a year, including health benefits. Based on the Clerk III compensation package, the city calculates the personnel costs at 50 cents a minute. But, as Ford noted in his letter, it also assumes copy times of three minutes for copying the first page of a request, and one minute for each subsequent page.
Both assumptions drew a sharp critique from Spokane lawyer Cheryl Mitchell, who filed a letter of protest with Ford on May 8th. Mitchell is a frequent city records requester and says she first noticed the increased charges when she sought records related to the city’s controversial decision this spring to use the “Rodenator” method to blow up ground squirrel burrows (and ground squirrels) at the Finch Arboretum in west Spokane.
“I think this [the new fee increase] is just a way to keep citizens from getting records, so as to keep the public from knowing what’s going on,” says Mitchell.
In her letter to Ford, Mitchell not only questioned using a Clerk III to make photocopies, but also took issue with the implausibly deliberate copy-making pace assumed in the city’s cost formula.
“In my case,” she wrote Ford, “it defies logic to think that it would take 24 minutes to copy 22 pages of documents, unless the copy machine were to break down during the process.”
To make her point, Mitchell used her kitchen timer to clock herself making copies.
Even without using the copier’s automatic document feeder, she wrote, it took her only 1 minute and 48 seconds to copy all 22 pages. She then repeated the experiment, this time by manually lifting the copier lid and pushing the “start” button for each copy. Even this method, she wrote, took only four minutes and 28 seconds, far short of the city’s estimate of 24 minutes to make the 22 copies.
Mitchell also noted in her letter that the state administrative rules on copying charges for public records says agencies “should generally compare its copying charges to those of commercial copying centers.”
“FedEx/Kinkos charges ten cents per page; there is a volume discount if many copies are made,” she reported to Ford.
Notably, the City Hall fee schedule departs from its cost analysis, in that it doesn’t charge citizens any fee for the first ten pages. The high charges kick when the request reaches eleven pages, and then the first ten pages are also charged for.
Thus, according to the city’s formulas, a requester would pay $3.60 for a ten page record at the police department, whereas at City Hall, a ten page document would be free. But a hundred pages of law enforcement records would cost $30.60, whereas a hundred pages of records at City Hall would cost a whopping $50, as opposed to just $15 before the April 14th fee increase.
Wrote Ford: “I encourage the city to review its actual costs to ensure they are reasonable. Calculation of staff time should be based on the wages of a position that ordinarily would be tasked with the bulk of copying duties, and not for an employee who might occasionally provide copying services. Additionally, almost all copiers are able to make copies far faster than what is assumed in the city’s calculation.”
Ford also noted that the city’s costs for recorded CDs and other electronic media (listed in the city’s policy at $15 per unit) “are under a dollar to top purchase commercially” at actual cost and “the city’s administrative policy does not provide any justification (required by law) for how these copy costs are determined.”
Pfister said she just got a copy of Ford’s letter on Friday and had not yet been involved in anticipated discussions with the Mayor’s office and city legal staff to reply to Ford’s letter. Ford’s letter comes almost a year to the day after state auditor Brian Sonntag, in a state-wide report on public records compliance, singled out the City of Spokane for its openly hostile attitude to funding compliance with the law’s requirements.
The Center for Justice’s Chief Catalyst Breean Beggs welcomed Ford’s letter and said he hoped it would be resolved in a way that accounted for the chill on open government that the much higher fees create.
“I look forward to the day when the city views assisting citizens with public records requests as important a public service as safety, transportation, land use planning and our parks,” he said. “In fact, open access to public records may be even more important because it gives citizens the tools they need to insure that those other services are provided at the highest standards.”