NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NEW JERSEY · Freedom of Information · March 30, 2006
55 dollar fee for public meeting minutes unreasonable
March 30, 2006 · Charging $55 for a computer disk containing a township council’s meeting minutes burdens access to records in violation of New Jersey’s public records law, a state appellate court ruled last week.
The “only discernable rationale for the fee is to discourage the public from requesting the information in this format,” Justice Jose Fuentes wrote for the unanimous Appellate Division of the Superior Court in Morristown, N.J. Charging a “facially inordinate fee” for putting the records onto a disk “places an unreasonable burden on the right of access” guaranteed by New Jersey’s public records laws and “violates the guiding principle set by the statute that a fee should reflect the actual cost of duplication,” Fuentes wrote in the March 23 ruling.
The custodian of government records for the township argued that the issue is moot because the records were available on the municipality’s Web site. But the plaintiff, the Libertarian Party of Central New Jersey, said the site’s postings are not current and meeting minutes sometimes are not posted for as long as three weeks.
The court sent the case back to the trial court to determine the actual cost of providing the meeting minutes on a disk. The Superior Court in Middlesex County originally ruled the township has the right to charge $55 for the records.
“The issue of fees obviously can be either used to keep just the basic information available to the public, or it can actually be used to block public access,” said Elizabeth Mason, president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. “When it’s $55 to put on a 75-cent disk some information that took approximately . . . less than five minutes, obviously that $55 wasn’t just to cover the cost of the custodian maintaining those records, it was actually to make money.”
In another New Jersey case regarding fees for public records, a Hudson County judge on March 20 struck down a Hoboken ordinance charging 75 cents per page for public records, as well as a $28-per-page charge for blueprints.
Mason, a Hoboken resident, filed the suit after other residents said they could not afford some of the documents they were requesting. The Hudson County court’s ruling will allow individuals who “are less likely to be able to afford high prices for copies better access to those records,” Mason said.
The Hoboken ordinance allowed the amount charged for public records as be as high as 75 cents per page, which soon became the standard charge statewide, Mason said.
“One of the things, unfortunately, that happens in government is that if something says ‘up to,’ that’s always like a red flag for the citizen,” Mason said. Instead of figuring out what the fee should be, custodians have just charged that amount, and it became the “standard across the board, irrespective to what really made sense to make copies.”
“If you take a commercial copy center down the street, they charge 7 cents a copy, you would hope that a government entity, through its ability to bid for materials, would at least be able to match that,” Mason said.
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government is recommending reasonable fee expectations to the New Jersey Government Records Council, an organization created under the state’s public records law that attempts to make records more easily accessible to the public.
“If more government entities would post things online, it would save everybody a lot of time and money,” Mason added.
(Libertarian Party of Central New Jersey v. Township of Edison; Requester’s counsel: Richard Gutman, Montclair, N.J.) — KV