April 29th, 2010
Day 2: FOI not profit center – Fight high copy fees
By David Cuillier
For the chapter session, which included more than 40 people, Jodi Cleesattle helped out by explaining some of the nuances of California public records law. Jodi is on the SPJ national FOI Committee, is a former journalist, former media law attorney, and now works for the state AG’s office. Jodi and I will do another session Saturday at the region 11 SPJ conference in San Francisco (Jodi is also the Region 11 Director for SPJ – wow!). California is lucky to have her!
One topic that consistently comes up in these access training sessions is how to deal with outrageous copy fees.
One person said some agencies are charging 25 cents or 50 cents a page to make a photocopy. Another reporter said an agency wanted to charge $100 an hour for a programmer and tens of thousands of dollars in “server time” to copy data.
Don’t accept these costs, especially in California where the law states copies should be “reasonable” and that agencies can’t charge for searching, retrieval or redaction time. Just the copies.
Tip No. 2: Here’s what I provide in the handouts that might help you get what you need for little or no money:
- Don’t ask for copies. Look at the documents for free. In most states an agency can’t charge for search fees, only for copies (check your state law).
- Narrow the request to just the few pages that you really need.
- Ask for a fee waiver as a researcher using the information for the public good (federal FOIA provides waivers for journalists, researchers, etc.).
- Take photos or use a portable scanner (about $100).
- Ask for electronic files on CD or e-mailed for free.
- Ask the agency for an itemized list of expenses to justify the costs. Here is what I consider reasonable: Add paper (.7 cents per page based on a box of paper from Office Depot), machine depreciation (.2 cents per page based on a Xerox WorkCentre 5225 that costs $4,299 and produces 75,000 copies a month), and toner (.6 cents per page), and you get 1.5 cents per page. Call it an even 2 cents per page and the agency is still making a 25 percent profit margin.
- Question high staff search fees, if in a state where that is charged – $100 per hour is equivalent to paying someone $208,000 a year to make copies.
- Request to see a copy of the contract the agency has with a copy company. My employer pays a company less than a penny (.9 cents) per page to provide the machine, service it and refill the toner. It’s all in a contract, which is public.
- Survey local agencies to compare typical costs and expose the unreasonable.
- Survey citizens to find out what they consider reasonable. Most people will say 10 or 15 cents per page copy. If a profit-oriented store can charge that, then surely a non-profit public agency can charge less.
- If the unreasonable charge is for computer programming, call the company that makes the software and ask them if copying data should be time consuming. They often say it takes a few minutes.
- Publicize the unreasonable copy fees. Find out if an agency provides free copies to lawyers or commercial requesters but overcharges citizens. Contact elected officials. Blog about it.
- Team with other requesters to share the bill. Request the request logs to see who else requests records frequently from the agency.
- Ask an ombudsman or state attorney general to talk sense into the agency.
- Sue or lobby for laws specifying reasonable fees.