NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey applauded last week's court decision requiring government agencies to charge the public for only the actual cost of copying records — no more.
"This decision relieves citizens of having to pay exorbitant fees for records and helps to restore the public's trust in their government," said Bobby Conner, staff attorney for the ACLU-NJ Open Governance Project.
Ending the high fees to access government records has long been a priority of the ACLU-NJ, which formed its Open Governance Project in June 2009 specifically to end these kinds of barriers to transparency and openness through advocacy, litigation, and public education about access to government information and by working with government agencies to resolve disputes and concerns.
The court's decision, which takes effect July 1, 2010, resolves a longstanding problem written into the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the law guaranteeing the public's access to government information. Although OPRA clearly states that government agencies cannot charge the public more than the actual costs of copies, the statute also provided a fee structure that allowed government agencies to charge citizens rates well beyond those of commercial copy shops for copies of public records.
The court clarified the matter by firmly limiting the fees to the actual costs of providing the records. If a government agency charges a fee higher than the maximum it can charge as listed in OPRA, the agency must document and justify the higher rate.
To determine the actual cost per page, as required, the court suggest agencies average all annual costs associated with its copying equipment and recalibrate the fees at least once annually.
"Public access to government is a right, not a privilege to those who can afford it," Conner added. "The public's right to know protects democracy, and the elimination of unnecessary fees protects the public. This decision removes what had been a thick barrier to citizen ownership of a transparent government."
The ACLU has long recognized that an open and transparent government is a founding value of American democracy. The ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project, the only full-time public interest legal program in the state dedicated solely to open governance matters, works closely with the New Jersey Legislature and county and local government agencies to promote greater access to public meetings and records.