Give Public Information Back to the Public

By Deborah Jacobs

When the Legislature revised the Open Public Records Act three years ago, our lawmakers overlooked a significant flaw that needs to be fixed if the law is to fulfill its promise - the grossly inflated costs that many government agencies charge for copies of public records, gouging residents who need public records to do their jobs, to participate in their communities and to conduct business.

In updating the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the Legislature let stand the a fee schedule that directs government agencies charge a maximum of 75 cents per page for the first 10 pages, 50 cents per page for the next 10 pages and 25 cents per page for all additional pages. As a trip to any commercial copy shop will confirm, these charges bear no relation to the actual costs of copying.

Unfortunately, the copying cost problem only begins with OPRA's unreasonable fee schedule; OPRA also allows agencies to set higher fees by regulation or local ordinance. Some state agencies routinely charge $1 to $2 per page for simple photocopies. Many local governments have their own ordinances with inflated costs of copying and few are based on the agencies' actual costs. When the ACLU requested documents from the 50 largest police departments in New Jersey, we were charged well over a dollar per page by certain municipalities, such as City of Plainfield which charged $10 for the first three pages and $4 for each page thereafter, and Township of Gloucester which charged $7 for three pages or less.

Fortunately, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan has taken a critical step to address the injustice that allows municipalities to fill their coffers at the expense of records seekers. The issue came to his attention when he observed a couple on the verge of losing their home having to pay $1 per page at a county office for copies of documents they needed to try to save their home from repossession.

On June 9 Cryan introduced A4140, which would decrease copying fees for many public documents to 10 cents per letter-size page and 15 cents per legal-size page, a price much closer to actual costs of copying and what most commercial copy shops charge.

Cryan's bill represents a fair and desirable solution that would help restore some measure of faith that government will charge citizens, including those on limited incomes, what they can readily accept as a fair price for copies rather than the arbitrary monopoly prices now imposed.

It would also be fair to government agencies which will still be able to recover the costs of providing copies to the public under this fee schedule and which can still charge a higher fee if it can document that its actual direct costs of copying would exceed the proposed fee schedule.

Assemblyman Cryan's bill is a simple, straightforward, commonsense measure that would tangibly improve the openness, accessibility and accountability of government in New Jersey. It is a simple step that will provide tremendous relief to countless everyday people in New Jersey.

Deborah Jacobs is the Executive Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

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