When ‘reasonable’ costs for public records become unreasonable

By Randy Evans—Commentary, Iowa Capitol Dispatch, January 11, 2023

The Legislature wrote Iowa’s public records law 55 years ago, and one of the tenets of the statute was the belief people deserve to know how state and local governments spend their tax money.  Another important concept in the law is that fees for copies of government records must be reasonable and cannot exceed the actual cost of providing the documents.

That brings us today to Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, where administrators appear not to grasp what “reasonable” means.

Under Iowa’s public records law, settlement agreements that resolve legal disputes must be made public upon request.  Last week, as part of my duties as the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, I submitted a formal request to Kirkwood President Lori Sundberg asking for a copy of that agreement with Mason.

College Vice President Jon Neff advised me that a copy of the document would cost $100.

He said the cost includes one hour of an employee’s time, charged at $50 per hour, for “data location services.” In English, that means it would take an employee making $104,000 per year one hour to locate a Microsoft Word document that President Sundberg reviewed and approved two months ago.

The $100 cost also includes another hour of work, also payable at $50 per hour, for “processing, formatting and data transfer” of the settlement document.  In simple English, that means it would take 60 minutes for a $104,000-a-year employee to either hit the “Print” button on his or her computer and drop the document in the mail to me or save the document as a PDF file and send that to me via email.

In plain language, Kirkwood’s fees are outlandish.  We no longer live in a time when government offices are filled with rows of file cabinets stuffed with records.  Before computers and computer searches, a clerk might need to spend an hour or more digging through file drawers to find a document like the one I requested.

It is far from reasonable for a community college that is financed by the taxpayers of Iowa to think it is justified in charging $100 for a document that might total 10 or 12 pages.  Kirkwood officials should be embarrassed to suggest with a straight face that it will take an hour to find that agreement and will take another hour to make a copy of it.

Read more here: https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2023/01/11/when-reasonable-costs-for-public-records-become-unreasonable/