It should go without saying that fair access to public information is essential in a democratic society. But some points bear repeating.
The Casper City Council recently approved a measure that will allow the city to charge for access to electronic public records. And though the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that it was legal for cities to charge reasonable fees for electronic public records, that doesn’t mean that it’s the right move.
The information belongs first and foremost to the taxpayers, and we’ve tasked our government with managing it. But those government bodies are meant to act as custodians of public information, not gatekeepers.
Fees for Casper citizens that request electronic records will kick in after one hour of staff time spent compiling it, at which point the hourly rates are $20.50 for clerical staff, $34 for information technology staff and $50 for professional staff. And that can add up quickly.
Media organizations, law firms and other large groups can afford to shoulder those costs. But what about individuals who may need access to public records but can’t afford it, or can’t afford the risk of not being able to afford it? The burden of these fees will be disproportionately shouldered by members of the public.
The right to information should not be determined by income.
Consider how the city will charge the public for the time of staff to compile a request. Imagine if access to a police officer was free for one hour, and then a citizen had to cough up an hourly rate for more of his time. This would be absurd for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that citizens already pay for such services.
The same is true for public records.
Taxpayers are already paying the city staff. They’re also paying for the office supplies. With these new fees, taxpayers will essentially be charged twice for the same service.
Some city leaders have expressed concern that there are those who will make large and time-consuming records requests for the sole purpose of burdening the government. But they offered no evidence to suggest this is happening often, or at all.
There is, however, reason to believe that the fees would unfairly limit access to information. Wyoming citizens shouldn’t be blocked from public records simply because they can’t afford to pay exorbitant and unfair fees. Even larger groups with budgets capable of paying the fees would encounter barriers when needing access to sizeable amounts of records.
Informed citizens are the foundation of a healthy democracy, and easily accessible public records are not a luxury, they are a necessity. No government body should have the power to disenfranchise Wyoming citizens by withholding placing public records, information generated and already paid for with public money, out of reach of any citizen. And fees such as those the city has implemented would undoubtedly withhold information from the very people it belongs to. And there’s nothing democratic about that at all.