FOIA advocates across the country have noted a growing trend amongst state and local governments to abuse FOIA by turning it into an income source through charging exorbitant fees for the release of records. However, while this behavior is often justified by claims of high copy costs and the loss of staff time, it is rare that a governmental body admit that the fees charged for records are being used to bring in additional funding, as is the case with the Wyoming County Recorder of Deeds Office in Pennsylvania.
This past week, the Recorder of Deeds rejected a request from the newspaper, The Citizen’s Voice, for records relating to natural gas leases in the state. The Voice sought the records as a part of a comprehensive online database of gas leases in the state. When the newspaper requested the documents in question as a digital file, either emailed or copied on to a flash drive, in order to better facilitate the transition to the database, the office claimed “My office staff, including myself, are not trained or familiar with loading information on a ‘flash drive’ as suggested by the requester” (Gas lease records at center of right-to-know controversy).
Clearly, in this modern day and age, the inability of an entire government office to use either flash drives or email accounts to transfer files displays either a complete oversight in training or a blatant lie. This lie became more apparent when the newspaper pushed for the records release, even sending someone to the office to retrieve the records. The newspaper employee saw the files on a computer and requested that they be transferred to a flash drive and the office employee stated that it was against the offices policy. In addition, the office claimed that they “had to protect their records” clearly hinting at need to maintain the income from the records being produced (Gas lease records at center of right-to-know controversy).
The notion of protecting records which are not exempt under the law from the public which pays for their creation through tax dollars is as undemocratic as it is absurd. While it is easy to understand the need for cash strapped government agencies to recover copying fees in order to maintain their budget, the use of copying fees to augment income runs counter to the very principles of the public records act. Currently, the Pennsylvania law allows for the charging of reasonable fees for copying established by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records and extended fees, based on market value, for data sets issued to private citizens. However, a 2008 directive from the Governor went against the Office of Open Records and stated that agencies may charge reasonable fees for staff time and searches. However, if files and government documents can be transferred easily through the use of technology, without cost to either the government office or the citizen, it should be advocated, encouraged and used. The original goal of the open records act is the free flow of information from government to citizens and anything that better enables the government to achieve that goal should be employed.
The Citizen’s Voice is currently filing an appeal at the state office of open records. We wish them the best of luck in overturning this absurd policy. If the courts rule in their favor, and order that government agencies must release documents in digital form, without charging for the transfer, it would be a big win for open records advocates in Pennsylvania and set another example of a state which truly supports the meaning and intention of transparency and openness in government.
Editor of WikiFOIA
To read the original article from the Citizens Voice, please see Gas lease records at center of right-to-know controversy.