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Counties may charge fees in excess of direct copying costs

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Freedom of Information         Nov 26, 2002    

Counties may charge fees in excess of direct copying costs

  • An attorney general opinion said that a county board of supervisors may charge more than is mandated by the California Public Records Act in order to cover costs.

A county board of supervisors may charge fees for copying public records in excess of the amount mandated by the California Public Records Act, according to a state attorney general opinion issued Nov. 1.

Advised of fees charged by Shasta County for public records in excess of the California Public Records Act, the California Newspaper Publishers Association prompted a state senator to seek an attorney general opinion to clarify the Act and the government code on which the county was hanging its hat.

“We think it’s the wrong answer,” said Tom Newton, general counsel for the CNPA. “But, we understand the rationale for it.”

The opinion contrasts the fee mandate in the CPRA, which allows only for direct cost of duplication.

The competing government code, section 54985, states that a “county board of supervisors shall have the authority to increase or decrease the fee or charge, that is otherwise authorized to be levied by another provision of law.” The fee must be an amount “reasonably necessary to recover the costs” of the copy.

“In charging a fee to cover its costs,” the opinion said, “a county board of supervisors could conceivably benefit those being charged since ‘an inability to charge fees in a sufficient amount to cover costs would likely produce inadequate staffing.'”

Fees that largely exceed the direct cost of copying are not unusual in California, Newton said, noting that in some areas people are charged as much as $20 for a police report.

The northern California-based Environmental Protection Information Center was initially charged $40,000 by the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for electronic records on logging operations.

CNPA was tipped off to such county practices by Greg Clark, the managing editor of the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif. The CNPA approached Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) to request the opinion — because attorney general opinions must be requested by a public official in California.

With the original request, submitted by Sher, the CNPA aimed to resolve the conflict between the CPRA and government code, Newton said. If the result was not favorable, Newton said they would opt for legislation.

But before any legislative moves are made, legwork needs to be done, Newton said. Foremost is to clarify the wording of the opinion and its distinction from the CPRA. The Act says the government may charge “fees covering direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable,” and the opinion states that counties may charge an “amount reasonably necessary to recover the cost.”

“We really want to explore with the attorney general’s office what the hell they meant before we get excited about it,” Newton said.

(Calif. Atty. Gen. Opinion 01-605) AU

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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