Freedom of Information — if you can pay

A column by Misty Poe, managing editor of The Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Several years ago, I made a Freedom of Information request to a local government agency. Within the five business days, as required by law, a packet of information was delivered to the office. I expected a bill, as most government offices have a charge that ranges from 25 cents to $1.25 per page for copies of the documents we request.

There was a bill, all right. The bill was about four times the cost I expected. Broken down, in addition to the $1.25 per page, there was a significant fee for the time spent by the lawyer to collect that information. His hourly rate, obviously.

“You can’t do that!” was my initial response.

Of course, now they can. But we’ll get to that.

Back then, I pulled out my copy of West Virginia Code 29B, the state Freedom of Information law, and looked for the clause I knew existed. There it was, 29B-1-3(5) — “The public body may establish fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it for its actual cost in making reproductions of such records.”

I didn’t believe the hundreds of dollars the newspaper was being asked to pay could be considered “reasonable.” Not by any stretch of the imagination. I made my case to an elected official, who saw to it that the legal fee was removed and I was charged the $1.25 per page.

But even $1.25 per page is hard to justify as the “actual cost.”

Let’s say I request a document that is 10 pages. The cost of a ream of paper at a local discount office supply store is $7.99 for 500 sheets. If you do the math, that’s 16 cents worth of paper for the 10 pages I requested. I’m charged $12.50, which leaves $12.34 unaccounted for. If it’s a simple request — a copy of a budget, specific invoices — how much time is actually invested in fulfilling that request? Are they factoring the “actual cost” of electricity used while the request is being fulfilled? The heating or cooling of the building during those few minutes? Wear and tear on the computer, copier or printer? The hourly wage of the government employee?

Of course, the same state code says the information must also be available for inspection. That means that I can make a request to see a specific document and that document can be made available to me at the office of the agency. That would be a way of getting around the “reasonable” fees and “actual costs” associated with making copies of the information requested.

But again, maybe not anymore. In fact, I bet that a recent West Virginia Supreme Court ruling will open the door for almost every government agency to charge a fee to process every single Freedom of Information request. I hate to put it this way, but I fully expect information just won’t be free anymore…

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