Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pay to play, or go away?

The Ketchum City Council is considering charging the public more for public records. It shouldn't.

Instead, the council should revise its charges and provide at least a limited number of records for free. The valley's other cities, government boards and Blaine County should do the same.

Why? Because government is paid for by the public, works for the public and produces public documents. The public has a right to see and examine them, but that right is infringed if the price is too high.

Elected officials commonly complain about the lack of public involvement in many issues. Yet government bodies can and do charge high fees to the public for retrieving and copying the very public documents that can improve public knowledge of complex issues.

A case in point: In early August 2008, this newspaper asked Ketchum to provide copies of all e-mails sent or received by the mayor and the City Council over 12 months regarding the proposed development of the Warm Springs Ranch Resort.

E-mails are the currency of public comment in this electronic age. And, like paper letters, they are public record.

Three months following its request, the newspaper received a data disk containing copies of the requested e-mails—along with a bill for $1,023.98.

State law allows cities to recoup the cost of the paper or electronic media that contains requested information, and labor costs for producing it as well. But the law doesn't say they must charge.

In a late-night hearing on a proposal to increase rates, council members said Ketchum has revamped its retrieval system since the newspaper's 2008 request.

Yet, as it stands today, it's still pay to play or go away for anyone who requests unpublished or archived information from the city. There are no exceptions, though requesters might be told that they can go before the City Council to ask for a fee waiver.

It's a contradiction to be funded by the public and do the work of the public on the public record and to then charge high fees to provide public information.

Public information is the business of government. Cities and counties should charge nothing for a reasonable amount of information and then reasonable fees beyond that. Such fees would strengthen public understanding and trust, and help to ensure that the public can find out what government is doing without having to pay through the nose.

That's transparency. That's good government. Ketchum and other government bodies need public document policies that encourage public oversight, not hinder it.

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