The Baldwin County Commission has changed its policy on access to public records in ways that may prove costly to people seeking information. One of the major changes appears to run afoul of attorney general opinions on the subject.
The Alabama Public Records Law states: “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
In practice, however, attorney general opinions have agreed that a government body may charge citizens for reasonable costs of making copies or of retrieving and preparing records.
The updated policy passed unanimously by the commission Tuesday not only sets such fees, but stipulates that members of the public may be billed for attorney fees if the county attorney reviews a request to determine whether releasing the record is legal. The fee is $225 per hour, billed in increments of a quarter of an hour.
That change appears to go against attorney general opinions dating back to at least 1998. In 1998, the state Attorney General’s Office said that if a request for public records requires an agency to incur legal expenses, it is “a ministerial function, the costs of which should be born [sic] by the public as a whole. Assessing legal fees against a citizen to enable the custodian to decide whether his or her records are public would seriously restrict access to public records.”
The new policy also allows the county to require a deposit in advance if staff determines that more than one hour of staff time will be required to respond to a public record request. And if more than 15 minutes is required, the person making the request would be charged at the hourly rate of the lowest-paid staff member who could respond.
Hypothetically, then, a member of the public who wants to look at a box of old records in storage could find the costs adding up.
Standard copying fees would be 25 cents per page for copies up to 11 inches by 17 inches. Individual county departments could charge more for maps, plats and similarly larger documents.
Commissioner Charles Gruber said Monday the proposal came from Commission Chairman Chris Elliott and County Administrator Ron Cink. The goal was to recover the costs to the county of fulfilling public records requests, he said. After this article was published on Wednesday, Gruber said he misspoke, and the proposal actually came from Cink and records manager Anu Gary. Together they were interested in making the process more efficient.
Gruber also pointed out that the county puts a great deal of information online for the public to access at will without charge. That information includes sometimes hundreds of pages of supporting material for commission meetings, as well as checks written by the county, ordinances, salaries, contracts, current bids and the county budget.
The new policy commits the commission to responding to a public records request within 10 working days unless more time is needed. A citizen seeking to inspect or obtain a copy of a document will need to fill out a request form which is sent to the record manager’s office. Then it will be forwarded via email to the appropriate department head. An appointment will be made for the person requesting the records to come to the county facility where they are located to view them.
The policy doesn’t address situations in which the requestor may have to drive from one end of Baldwin County to the other to get to a document, nor does it address whether people must pay by check or credit card; not all county offices accept credit cards. It is also not clear whether an email request for a document will suffice or whether a check written in advance would have to clear the bank before the request would be honored.
Updated to include Commissioner Gruber’s clarification of the origin of the proposal.