This surcharge supposedly to just apply to searches over 2 hours. But as anyone who has ever been involved in open records request knows, it is impossible to tell what the agency is doing behind closed doors. Many records that should take minutes to produce, takes weeks, even months. Often they claim the need to redact documents of confidential information which is often about removing information that might be embarrassing for the company. Are we supposed to pay for the redaction time? The bill suggests that the only thing the agency can't bill for is "computer processing time."
What is most shocking to me is the response of the Hoosier State Press Association in supporting the bill: USA Today reports:
However, the bill would allow someone to receive records that already are in an electronic format via email. Under current law, an agency can refuse to send electronic
copies, forcing a requester to pick up records in person and pay the copying fee.
Stephen Key, Executive Director, Hoosier State Press Assn.
The Hoosier State Press Association says the benefit of getting records in an easy format outweighs the potential negatives of a search fee; the organization has not opposed the bill.
HSPA Executive Director Steve Key said he doesn't believe the fee will deter someone from making a large request, but said it could "discourage fishing expeditions where you just want to go through and find everything."I don't buy the electronic records reason cited by Mr. Key. The benefit of getting electronic documents emailed is extremely minimal benefit as opposed to giving agencies a tool to avoid compliance with open records laws by charging $20 an hour for search. When obligated to provide electronic information, most agencies prefer to email the information as doing so easier than burning a disc to provide the information to the citizen. But anyone who has dealt with government agencies knows that those agencies will jump at the chance to utilize the $20 an hour charge to punish those citizen journalists, i.e. bloggers, who in the internet age have largely replaced the mainstream media when it comes to breaking stories culled by going through public records.
Indeed, a desire to eliminate competition might well be the true motivation of the Hoosier Press Association's support of the bill. The mainstream media can afford search fees imposed by agencies. But the citizen journalist, blogging for free, can't pay a $100 bill issued by the agency for a public records search. If the bloggers can't pay those fees, then they can't continue to break the stories, repeatedly scooping the mainstream media when it comes to uncovering political corruption and other wrongdoing. Imagine depending entirely on the Indianapolis Star to uncover stories of local political corruption. Scary isn't it?
Thanks so much to the Indiana Law Blog for continually keeping abreast of this story. Also, Advance Indiana's Gary Welsh has written about this story.