Acceptable fees for public records
Q: I live in a County Waterworks District. When I have asked for information in regards to the operation of the District, The County tells me the District will be charged for the time it takes to provide the information. The request is for 10 pages or less of information. I have offered to pay for the actual copying. I was told the District would be billed 75.00+ for staff time. Is this allowed?
A: Under the Public Records Act (“PRA”), the district may only charge a fee “covering direct costs of duplication” (or a statutory fee). Government Code § 6253(b). But the courts have held that the “direct cost” generally does not include search and retrieval time. North County Parents Organization v. Department of Education, 23 Cal. App. 4th 144, 146 (1994). “Direct cost” does include maintenance costs and the salary of the clerk for time spent copying, but that boils down to essentially what a copy shop would charge — usually $.10-.25 per page, except for unusual copies, such as building plans.
However, Counties may be allowed, by statute, to charge fees that exceed the “direct costs of duplication” for copies of certain documents, such as water district documents, so long as the fees do not exceed the amount reasonably necessary to recover the cost of providing the copy. Government Code § 54985(a) (“Notwithstanding any other provision of law that prescribes an amount or otherwise limits the amount of a fee or charge that may be levied by a county, a county service area, or a county waterworks district governed by a county board of supervisors, a county board of supervisors shall have the authority to increase or decrease the fee or charge, that is otherwise authorized to be levied by another provision of law, in the amount reasonably necessary to recover the cost of providing any product or service or the cost of enforcing any regulation for which the fee or charge is levied. The fee or charge may reflect the average cost of providing any product or service or enforcing any regulation.”).
The California Attorney General has determined that § 54985(a) trumps § 6253(b). 85 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 225 (2002). The questions, then, would be whether the Fresno County Board of Supervisors authorized the water district to charge a fee above and beyond what the PRA allows and, if so, whether $75 is reasonably necessary to recover the cost of providing the documents?
If the supervisors authorized the charging of fee, but you dispute whether $75 is reasonable, under § 54985(b) you can ask the board of supervisors to request the county auditor to conduct a study and to determine whether the amount is reasonable.
One other point, which may be of value to you. As a general rule, the PRA does not allow the district to charge you anything to just inspect a record (as opposed to obtaining a copy). And the Attorney General’s Opinion concurs that “a ‘reasonably necessary’ fee for a copy of a public record [under § 54985(a)] would have no effect upon the public’s right of access to and inspection of public records free of charge.” 85 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 225, 202 Cal. AG LEXIS 42, at *10.