Public record costs unreasonable in many offices

An editorial from The Herald-Dispatch 

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Your right to see and copy public records in West Virginia is very clear. State law states “every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record of a public body in this state” except for a list of specific exemptions, which include things such as trade secrets, government personnel files or terrorism investigations.

But the cost to get copies has long been a sticking point for West Virginians and residents of many states. Too many government agencies have charged unreasonable fees for duplication and “research” to boost their revenue stream, and in the worst cases, to discourage the public from poking around too much.

In 2014, the West Virginia Legislature updated the law to make it clear that copying costs need to be reasonable. The law now reads:

“The public body may establish fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it for its actual cost in making reproductions of records. A public body may not charge a search or retrieval fee or otherwise seek reimbursement based on a man-hour basis as part of costs associated with making reproduction of records.”

That is very clear, but two years later, some offices have yet to adjust their practices.

The Herald-Dispatch surveyed circuit clerk offices in Cabell, Wayne, Mason, Putnam and Kanawha counties and found they are charging the public $1 per page for copies of public records such as lawsuits and warrants.

That is excessive by any standard. The Marshall library charges 10 cents, and commercial copy shops do color copies for 11 cents and high volume black and white pages for as low as 2 or 3 cents per page.

These circuit clerks need to analyze their “actual costs” for making copies and establish reasonable rates. Other governmental offices that are in violation of the law need to follow suit.

The public through its tax dollars already has paid for the copy machine, the paper, the toner and the offices in which the files and the equipment are kept. The public already has paid the salary of the officials and clerks who are the custodians of these documents.

To make the public pay through the nose again with inflated fees is no longer legal in West Virginia.


See more from The Herald-Dispatch. 


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