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Overturn order, then study fees for records

November 26, 2011
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral City Council is set to discuss an enacted change to the city's public records policy on Monday.

We thank Councilmember Kevin McGrail for bringing the matter forward for public discussion - especially since council consideration is weeks overdue.

The revision, which changed how the city charges for public records, was made unilaterally by City Manager Gary King back in September.

The new policy, put into effect Oct. 1 without either council discussion or public input, changed the trigger point at which the city tacks staff time onto records requests deemed "extensive."

The previous policy defined "extensive" requests as those taking more than an hour to retrieve, compile, redact and copy. Mr. King unilaterally rolled back the trigger point to 15 minutes, meaning all but the most routine requests now include a charge for staff time in addition to copying fees set by the state.

How much for staff time?

Well, in answer to a records request made by one of his bosses, Councilmember Marty McClain, Mr. King advised that staff time to produce his cell phone records would be billed at $90 per hour. It seems only Mr. King himself can redact any personal numbers made on the cell phone for which the city pays him a generous stipend.

Mr. McClain could either ante up more than $700 or drop his request for the records.

As do many residents when faced with hefty charges for records that are, one, by law open for public inspection, and two, already paid for with public money, Mr. McClain has not blithely forked over the cash.

Making records hard to obtain by making them too costly is hardly the intent behind public records statutes state officials tout as being among the most progressive in the nation.

We do have one caveat to our urge to revisit, however.

Mr. McGrail has expressed a willingness to split the difference between the previous policy and Mr. King's enactment.

This would not be prudent, either.

Setting the "extensive" use trigger at half an hour would be as arbitrary as Mr. King's 15-minute knee-jerk made without staff complaint, study or documentation as to need.

We urge our new council to, at minimum, overturn Mr. King's new administrative regulation concerning public records. Let the one-hour trigger ride.

Then take some time to study the issue.

"Extensive" time fees are a hotly debated issue and have been for several years. The fees have been so misused since a court ruling paved the way for excessive add-on costs that legislation has been repeatedly proposed to rein in how and when the charges can be assessed.

Perhaps our council may find the public can be better served by keeping records in a manner that allows ease of access. This would provide for more open governance and likely would be cheaper in the long run for the city and taxpayer alike.

Now that would be a step in the right direction.

- Breeze editorial



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