OPRA copying fees: Freedom of Information, but at a steep charge

OPRA copying fees: Freedom of Information, but at a steep charge

December 04, 2009 Star Ledger

Want a copy of that municipal budget so you can see how your money is being spent? Want the minutes to that meeting to see how the mayor and council or freeholders voted on a particular issue? Okay, but they’re going to cost you.

Governments and agencies, with the help of the Legislature’s hazy wording in the state’s Open Public Records Act of 2001, have been charging copying fees that are more than five times the actual costs.

At a time when elected and appointed officials are being investigated by the dozens, taxpayers should be encouraged to dive into the murky waters of local, county and state government. But exorbitant copying costs are discouraging them.

The law allows most agencies to charge at least 75 cents per page for the first 10 pages, 50 cents per page for the next 10 pages, and 25 cents for each additional page. That means a 20-page document costs a taxpayer $12.50.

That’s about 10 times what a copy chain charges.

"There is no reason to overcharge for public documents." Rep. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) says. He’s right.

While local governments should strive to find creative ways to raise money in this economy, gouging residents who want to track their tax dollars is not the way to do it. After all, taxpayers already have paid for these documents many times over.

One by one, lawsuits have forced agencies, counties and municipalities to reduce their copying fees. New Jersey can wait for reasonable fees to plod through the state, town by town, case by case. But there’s a better solution: The Legislature can set uniform statewide rates.

There are identical bills in the state Senate and Assembly that would cap the costs for copies of most municipal, county and state records at 10 cents per page for letter-sized documents and 15 cents for legal-sized. They have bipartisan support. It’s time to pass one.

The free flow of information is a cornerstone of democracy, and it fosters transparency. Passing a law that makes records more accessible would send a message that New Jersey, while it probably still has plenty to hide, welcomes the public’s help finding it.

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