Public records do not belong to the institution. As the name suggests, they belong to the public. Unfortunately, many public entities don’t operate under that assumption.
Luckily, there’s a bill before the Kansas Legislature that would make public records more accessible and affordable for everyday citizens as well as journalists and government watch dogs.
Senate bill 10 would set a limit to how much government entities can charge citizens for access to public documents. We hope to see this legislation become law, because some entities abuse their privilege by charging exorbitant fees for records that the public rightfully own.
Take for example the Gardner Edgerton School District.
Last week, the district charged The Gardner News more than $52 for a 193-page document. The document included 16 contracts related to one portion of the district’s $72 million bond project. Specifically, the contracts are related to the construction of Grand Star Elementary School. The request did not include contracts related to the construction of a new middle school, upgrades to the district football field and a new athletic center.
The charges include a 25-cent-per page copy fee and hourly staff rate. Public entities are required to appoint a keeper of public records. In the case of USD 231, taxpayers pay the salary of the records keeper. Surely collecting and disbursing public records is a part of the job.
The district prints out its record requests. So the copying fee is a requirement for gathering a public document.
No doubt responding to open records requests does place a burden on public entities, but that burden is part of the deal when you are doing the business of “the people” who typically have little to no say as to how their tax dollars are spent. Easy, affordable access to public records would at least allow the public to look at where their hard-earned dollars are spent.
Limiting the amount that entities can charge for those records may also result in better systems for managing records and making them accessible. USD 231, for example, may be more inclined to spend valuable staff time putting records online where they’re available to everyone, rather than spending staff time making copies.
Under current law, government staff are gate keepers of public records when instead they should be more like records librarians, assisting people in easily finding the documents they need. Senate Bill 10 would be a much needed step in the right direction.