City records

Collecting reasonable fees for public-records requests is only fair

That the city of Durango wants to ensure it gets paid for public-record requests only makes sense. Members of the public have a right to inspect government records, but the taxpayers have no obligation to cover costs incurred by private parties engaged in private business.

It is something of a balancing act. City records are public property and, with limited exceptions spelled out in the Colorado Open Records Act, open to the public. And any fees must be reasonable; the city cannot use the fee structure effectively to avoid public scrutiny.

But by the same token, city employees are not paid to be researchers for lawyers or private businesses. Nor are public-records requests meant to foster what amounts to rummaging through city files.

That sort of thing was demonstrated recently when the owners of the Durango Mall filed records requests that required four city employees to work 10 days on and then found they did not need much of the information. That they then balked at the more than $16,000 in associated charges further illustrates the city’s case.

To streamline the system and ensure fairness, the city plans to charge a flat rate for records searches, estimate the cost involved and ask for half of the money up front. It had been asking for payment after the person requesting the records had inspected them and chosen which pages to copy. But that allowed some cellphone users to photograph the records with their phones and leave, thereby avoiding not only the 25 cents-per-page copying fee but the more significant charge for the records search.

Getting what amounts to a 50 percent deposit should help. The obvious answer would be to get a credit card at the start, but the city is not set up to do that.

The city’s search fee will be $30 per hour, which in many cases will be lower than previous fees, which were based on the actual pay of the people involved. Many records requests involve the highest-paid city employees such as department heads, the city manager or city attorney. They, after all, are the decision-makers and the ones with the most important records.

Complicating everything, of course, is technology. Historically, most records searches involve planning issues, engineering and land-use questions. More and more, those and other topics are handled by email, which also involves some of the most time-consuming searches.

The city purges emails more than two years old on a daily basis, but at any given moment, it still has 3.5 million on file. Searching that many files for everything related to a given topic takes time, particularly in that several different search terms may need to be applied. After all that, the results have to be run by an attorney to check for information that is required to be kept confidential. Presumably, that lawyer bills more than $30 per hour.

For the actual copies, the city charges 25 cents per page, regardless of whether it is delivered as a paper copy, digitally scanned, by fax or email. With that, a provision banning members of the public from photographing files also is being discussed. It would seem, though, that if the city can collect its fees first, that would be moot. Figure out how to get that credit card, or perhaps the city could charge for every page and refund a quarter for the ones not selected.

Overall, the city is on the right track. Open records are central to democracy and essential to good government. But costs and fairness count, too. The city seems to have found a good balance.