Sunshine Week 2012: Fees for public documents: From dimes to dollars

What does it cost for you to copy a piece of paper?

Probably a few pennies if you do it yourself, or 10 cents a page if you go to a commercial-copying business.

If you ask the government in Nevada for a copy, though, you might get it for free - or you might pay as much as $2 a page.

That can be a problem when it comes to public documents, because one of the barriers to access to documents is the fee that may be charged to make a copy.

During Sunshine Week, when newspapers around the country spotlight their efforts to keep government as open as possible, it's a good time to take a look at one of the seemingly small issues that can lead to big problems.

In Nevada, statutes specify the amount that government can charge to make a copy.

In many cases, you can get a few copies for free. At the State Library and Archives, for example, the public can get up to 30 pages for no charge. Otherwise it's 10 cents a page.

If you need a copy of a public document from your county clerk's office, expect to pay $1 a page. That's the maximum in that section of law, although the statute does allow them to give away copies.

The same $1-a-page fee applies to most court records too. Oddly, you pay only 30 cents for copies from justice court, according to the law. Apparently the paper and ink in justice court costs less than in district courts.

At Secretary of State offices, expect to pay $2 a page for copies.

It used to be $1 a page there too. But during the Nevada Legislature's second special session of 2003, the legislation that doubled business fees in Nevada also doubled the cost of obtaining a copy.

These higher fees seem to contradict the spirit of Nevada's open records law, which says fees charged for copies "must not exceed the actual cost to the governmental entity to provide the copy of the public record unless a specific statute or regulation sets a fee that the governmental entity must charge for the copy."

So, like many of Nevada's statutes, the straightforward intent of the law - not to exceed "actual costs" - can be overruled if lawmakers create an exception somewhere else in the law.

What's the justification for government to nickel, dime and dollar you for a copy of public records? It could be argued that the cost of producing a copy involves more than ink and paper. It does take an employee's time, after all, to make a copy.

But that argument doesn't fly for a couple of reasons.

The open records law already allows for an additional charge if copying requires "extraordinary use of personnel or resources." And an attorney general's opinion from several years ago says that "extraordinary use" starts only if the task takes more than 30 minutes.

In other words, making routine copies of documents for the taxpaying public is already a part of government's job.

A dime here or a dollar there doesn't sound like much. But we've seen examples in Nevada when an agency that didn't particularly want to supply copies of public documents, for whatever reason, used fees as a way to discourage the people who were requesting them.

In one recent instance, a request for copies of court documents elicited an estimated cost of $940,000. Granted, the request was for a lot of pages (some 600,000), but a business could have done it for one-tenth the price.

In another example, a Nevada school district initially wanted to charge $4,000 for copies of public documents. When the requester put up a fight, the estimate dropped to $135. When she took the matter to court, the judge said the copies must be provided at no charge.

It makes sense for Nevada governments to recover their costs. To me, though, that cost looks closer to a dime than a dollar.

• Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association. Sunshine Week is March 11-17.


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