EDITORIAL: FOIL bill would prevent charging multiple times for same records

Gazette Editorial Board

Originally published in The Daily Gazette

Time is money.

That’s especially true for government bodies that make money by charging citizens for public records that clerks have already searched for, prepared, distributed and stored.

A bill that was sent to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk on Monday would stop the practice of governments charging citizens for work they’ve already done.

In fulfilling a request for public records, government officials in many cases are allowed to charge citizens for the physical copy of the record requested (photocopies or electronic storage devices like CDs).

But in some cases, government bodies are also allowed to charge for the time the records officer needs to search for the records.

According to a FAQ prepared by the state Committee on Open Government, a government agency can charge for the actual cost of reproducing electronic records if the individual requests a large volume of records.  If it takes an agency more than two hours to prepare, extract or generate electronic data, the agency can charge for its employee’s time.

It’s charging for the employee’s time where the real cost of obtaining records can come in.

That search cost people a lot of money and possibly discourage them from continuing to seek the records. That goes against the entire principle of open government and transparency.

Some large businesses sometimes use the FOIL law to overwhelm small government agencies with work gathering records in order to delay or prevent the release of information or delay a proceeding involving that company.

Allowing governments to charge for their time on big requests helps discourage that practice and helps offset the cost of such requests to ordinary taxpayers.

But once a government agency has sought for and obtained records based on one request, there’s no reason to charge another individual the same full price for requesting the same information for the same work.

That would be like an Uber driver charging multiple people for a ride to the same place at same time. It costs the driver no more in gas or time to transport two people than it does to transport one. So why should the driver get paid multiple times for the same trip?

This bill (A4677/S4863A) addresses the same type of issue. It would prohibit government agencies from charging a fee for records where an electronic copy is already available from a request made within the previous six months.

If multiple requesters seek the same information before the original request has been fulfilled, the government agencies would have to apportion the cost among the requesters – in much the same way the Uber driver does.

People searching for identical records happens more than you might think. That’s why many agencies post commonly requested records on their websites — so they don’t have to expend the time and effort conducting searches each time the same record is requested.

This bill is an offshoot of that principle, and fills a gap in the law.

Gov. Hochul should sign it.