Durango, Colorado, officials want to ban photography of public records

A great way to cut down on the cost of obtaining public records is to make your own copy.

In the past, that would have meant bringing in your own portable photocopier or one of those 110 spy cameras like they show in old movies on late-night TV. But today, with high-resolution digital cameras, cellphone cameras and tablet computers, it’s really easy.

So easy that Durango, Colo., wants to outlaw it.

The Durango Herald reports the city is going to vote on an ordinance Tuesday to bar records requesters from taking pictures of the documents they are seeking. City Clerk Amy Philips said the practice is costing the city money, in that the staff takes time to assemble “the records and let people come in and observe the records and tag which ones they want copies of, but we’re finding out now that people are able to come in with a phone and just (photograph) the copies.

“Then we don’t retrieve the money we spent.”

Along with banning photography, the city is planning to charge people $30 an hour for records requests to cover staff time spent filling the request on top of the 25-cent fee for copies.

The Durango City Council will vote on the proposal at the June 17 meeting.

We saw a similar argument in Utah, when that state’s legislature pushed through a bill gutting the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act. One of the changes it proposed was to add overhead costs — employee benefits, building utilities, rent, etc. — to the fees charged for records.

There are a couple problems with calls to “recoup” fees for public documents.

The fees charged for copying usually go well above and beyond the actual costs. When adding the costs of paper, toner and depreciation on the photocopier, the actual cost is about 1.5 cents per copy, which explains how copy centers can charge 7 cents a copy and stay in business.

I’ve personally seen a 911 dispatch center in Utah charge $20 for a recording of an emergency call on a compact disc. Depending on where you shop, a CD can cost about 25 cents a copy, and if Apple can get away with selling songs for 99 cents, a $1.25 would be a reasonable cost.

As far as the employees’ time, filling a records request, especially if it is a request that benefits the public, is just part of their job, which the public is already paying for through their taxes. Essentially, a records requester is being asked to pay twice for the same employee.

High fees can be used as a tool to deny access, especially for people of modest means.

A real-life example of this happened when the Utah Democratic Party sought records and correspondence releated to the Republican-dominated Legislature’s redistricting efforts. The Legislature charged them almost $15,000 for three boxes.

Officials only backed down when media outlets asked for the records.

A records fee could be justified in cases where a business is making the request solely for self-interest. But bureaucrats shouldn’t use public records as a revenue stream.

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