- Cullman, Alabama

February 13, 2013

EDITORIAL: City records should be free

The Cullman Times

CULLMAN — For the first time ever the City of Cullman has established a fee structure for anyone seeking public records. It now costs 50 cents per page for requested documents, on top of potential “actual costs” for a city employee to assemble the files, if needed.

The only problem? Citizens already pay for this work to be done. The “fee” is called taxes, and there’s no reason citizens should have to pay extra to access documents that are already public record.

Officials say a handful of large document requests have become burdensome for some departments, which is a legitimate issue. But purposeful or not, enacting this ordinance will discourage large document requests by placing hefty fees on them. Putting the cost on the backs of those trying to be engage and checkup on local government is the exact wrong reason to do this.

A policy like this should only be considered if the city is going bankrupt providing public documents. If that were the case a policy to address requests over 50-100 pages might be reasonable. But right now, it’s not.

Creating a blanket policy that could have people paying $1-2 just to pick up an agenda for a council meeting is a terrible precedent to set.

Now, council members say small requests like that won’t be affected, but the ordinance says otherwise. The policy as approved this week does not set aside any exceptions for small document requests such as agendas, meaning city hall could charge for any reasonable file or document within the current framework.

Regardless of the justification, anything that adds an extra layer of bureaucracy and cost between the people and public information is a bad thing. Period.

Local leaders may have had the best of intentions, but they’re establishing a system that breeds apathy and discourages residents from engaging with local government.

Is that cost really worth whatever amount might be saved in the budget?