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Advocates slam proposal to charge for meeting records requests

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PHOENIX – A proposal that would allow governments to charge a fee for time-intensive public records requests would restrict access to information and undermine open government, a media attorney told lawmakers Thursday.

“Bottom line is public records in Arizona belong to the people. They don’t belong to government officials, they don’t belong to government bureaucrats and they don’t belong to public bodies,” said Chris Moeser, who represented Phoenix Newspapers Inc. and KPNX-TV before the House Committee on Technology and Infrastructure.

But René G. Guillen Jr., legislative director for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said some municipalities are overwhelmed by the number of requests combined with the requirement under state law to fulfill them promptly.

“It can become an all-hands-on-deck in order to fulfill public record requests,” Guillen said.

Proposed by Rep. David W. Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, in an amendment to HB 2419, a bill he authored on another subject, the measure would allow governments to charge for public record requests that take longer than four hours to fulfill.

The fee would include reimbursement for the cost of labor to obtain the copies, printouts or photographs, calculated in hourly wages following the four-hour mark.

Stevens said several people have mentioned to him the difficulties governments have complying with large numbers of public records requests, and Guillen said sometimes many of those requests are submitted by one or two people – for example, an individual in Yuma who made 46 requests in 44 days.

“You don’t want to make a law on two people and punish the whole state,” Stevens said, “but you can’t just let that go.”

The committee didn’t vote on the proposal. Stevens said he’d meet with both sides next week before deciding next steps, adding that the four-hour limit he proposed “is not in concrete.”

Guillen said his group’s main concern is individuals who file multiple requests for information that they don’t even wind up reviewing.

“When it’s getting legitimate requesters, legitimate information, we don’t have a problem,” he said.

While Stevens cited other states that have similar fees, Moeser said the proposal would be unprecedented under Arizona law.

“It’s essentially a tax on transparency,” he said.

Moeser said the fee could potentially give more reasons for corrupt officials to withhold records.

“Imposing any kind of a user fee on public records like this would impose a significant burden on members of the public who are just trying to monitor government,” he said.

Rich Robertson, a former journalist and owner of a Valley private investigation firm, said he’s concerned about placing a burden on all people just to deal with a few extreme cases.

Robertson cited a case of an individual who was exonerated after he and other volunteers at the Arizona Justice Project were able to find information in public records that proved the man’s innocence after 38 years in prison.

“Had this bill been in effect at that time, the sheriff’s office could have imposed substantial fees that would have likely been financially prohibitive to this group of volunteers to be able to go in and determine if this guy was wrongly convicted,” Robertson said.