If an agency charges you staff time for a records request, you don’t have to pay

You shouldn’t have to pay for the time it takes an agency to fill an open records request — though some, if not many, agencies do try to charge for that time.

The state’s open records office, though, issued a decision recently that explicitly says an agency can’t charge for the time it takes to respond to a request.

Agencies can bill for “reasonable” charges, such as duplication cost, the state’s right-to-know law says. But the State Employees Retirement System charged the Beaver County Times about $12 in staff time for some pension-fund numbers. SERS said it had to charge because it’s mandated by law to use retirement money only to benefit its members.

The newspaper appealed, and the OOR’s decision said that “Charging for the time it takes an agency
employee to respond to a request during normal
business hours is not a proper charge to pass
along to a requester.”

The newspaper’s managing editor said the issue wasn’t the money, it was the fact that the paper was being charged at all. SERS says it might appeal.

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association lawyer Melissa Melewsky said that when an agency charges for staff time, it can keep people from being able to get public records.


 ”The Beaver County Times decision provides a great precedent for members of
the public seeking access to records,” she said in an e-mail. “Charging fees for staff time to
retrieve and copy records is completely inappropriate and presents a barrier to access.
 ”Complying
with the Right to Know Law is an appropriate and necessary job duty for
public servants; it is not extra work. To suggest that an agency can
charge the public a fee for a
public servant filling a routine
request for records flies in the face of an agency’s duty to provide
public accountability as well as its duty to comply with PA law.”

I
think if SERS says it is forced to charged for staff time to fill an
open records request, because doing so is using money in a way that
doesn’t benefit its members, it is inviting a complete audit. Common
sense tells you that the office, like any other, spends money on things
that don’t directly benefit its members.

The lawyers could just as easily say that filling an open records request shows that our agency is transparent to the public, and that transparency increases the public oversight of our office, and that is a direct benefit to members.

About Scott Blanchard

Sunday editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.
This entry was posted in Pennsylvania Right to Know. Bookmark the permalink.

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