DENVER (AP) – A 2014 Colorado law to cap search fees for open-records requests has led to significant price decreases for the public, with some agencies dropping fees more than a third.
But Colorado still has work to do to make more records available digitally, which could reduce costs even further, according to watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch.
The search-fee law caps the cost of retrieving public records at $30 an hour, with the first hour free. Before then, government agencies charged a wide range of fees after court rulings that search fees should be “nominal,” but with no further detail.
“You had governments charging nothing to $20 an hour to $195 an hour, depending if they were going to have attorney review records for redaction,” said Jeff Roberts, head of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
The bill to change that state of affairs came after a 2013 report from Colorado Ethics Watch, which checked search fees in various counties and cities. The report concluded that steep research and retrieval fees hindered transparency.
“Transparency in government is too important to be limited to a handful of groups or individuals who can afford to pay charges for time spent disclosing documents about public business,” authors concluded.
Fees have dropped in many areas, or at least become more predictable, since the passage of the $30-an-hour limit.
“It has made a difference, created greater consistency between local governments to make sure public records are available to citizens in an easy way and cost-effective way,” said Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, who sponsored the law.
But some agencies still charge fees even to estimate what the fees should be. The Colorado Department of Law told The Associated Press last year that it would need to charge even to gauge a bill to furnish public records between the department and federal agencies on marijuana. Opponents of the fee cap, including a representative from the department, cited the AP’s request in legislative debate.
Carolyn Tyler, a spokeswoman for the department, said recently that the search fees have come down, but that the department maintains it can charge fees to estimating search fees. “It’s appropriate to have a conversation with the requestor and make sure they’re prepared to pay the bill,” Tyler said.
AP declined to pay about $1,500 to retrieve the records.
Peg Perl, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, said the $30-an-hour cap has “standardized and lowered (fees) across the board.”
But the group still wants to see Colorado improve access by making more records available online, eliminating the need for retrieval or copying fees. “There are categories of documents that are routinely kept and the subject of public interest that should be placed online,” the report concluded last year.
– By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer
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