The GOED/EB-5 scandal has revealed the widely varying and sometimes exorbitant fees that some state agencies charge to fulfill public records requests. Some South Dakota public servants charge you nothing to provide public documents. Other state agencies think the documents and services you paid for with your tax dollars aren't really yours until you pay even more. The Governor's Office of Economic Development has demanded $46.02 per hour to satisfy some public records requests. Hmmm... might the price be proportional to the office's desire to keep us from seeing what they've been up to?
Seeming to take a cue from my Christmas Eve suggestion, Rep. Bernie Hunhoff (D-18/Yankton) and Sen. Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) are proposing House Bill 1139, to limit the fees citizens have to pay for public documents. This bipartisan proposal leaves intact the permission for officials to charge citizens the actual cost of printing and delivering and documents. HB 1139 caps fees for staff time in excess of one hour at $10.00 per hour.
I'm not convinced we can justify charging any hourly fee for government employees to carry out government functions. Librarians don't charge borrowers extra for bringing back books that take more than an hour to reshelve. Police don't charge crime victims an hourly investigation fee if they need more than an hour to process the evidence at the crime scene. Teachers don't charge students a grading fee if their papers are so poorly written that it takes more than an hour to correct them... hey, wait, I like that idea!
We may need some expense to deter monkeywrenchers from shutting down government by walking into the courthouse and requesting copies of every public record available from the last two decades. (Hey, Tea Party! Why haven't you thought of that?) But perhaps we can come up with a solution that avoids high costs for curious citizens and protects our public officials from frivolous and burdensome records requests.
The state could reduce the cost of fulfilling open records requests by creating every public document electronically. Post every public record online (HTML format whenever possible, PDFs only when necessary, to save space). Most searches move online, as folks will be able to find all the really important public documents linked and explained here on the Madville Times. Public officials need only respond to requests for old paper documents only available in their filing cabinets.
HB 1139 is a fair gesture toward limiting the ability of public officials to use high fees to avoid public scrutiny. But let's keep an eye out for other ways to help South Dakotans get their hands on their documents and keep their money in their pockets.