HARRISBURG — Starting next year, citizens seeking copies of most public records in Pennsylvania won’t be charged more than a quarter a page, under an order that the state’s open-records chief plans to issue Monday.
“Nationally, duplication fees are one of the most abused areas of any government access law,” said Terry Mutchler, director of the fledgling Office of Open Records. “Quite often, high fees are just another way to deny citizens access to their government.”
The fee schedule, which Mutchler was required to establish under the expanded state Right to Know Law that takes effect Jan. 1, covers the executive branch of state government, as well as county and municipal governments and school districts.
It does not cover the judicial branch, where the three statewide appellate courts charge $1 a page for copies, or the legislative branch, where the House of Representatives charges 50 cents a page.
The fee schedule has been anxiously awaited by agencies trying to craft policies for implementing the law, and the 25-cent limit appeared unlikely to alarm county and local officials.
Sharon Fissel, policy services director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said she has reviewed the policies of about 100 of the 501 school boards. Per-copy charges range from 10 cents to $1, with the average at around 25 cents, she said, and she does not anticipate much opposition from members of her group.
“I think they’ve just been waiting to accept what the Office of Open Records wishes,” Fissel said.
Doug Hill, executive director of the Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association, said 25 cents a copy is basically standard among the 67 counties, although a few charge as much as 50 cents.
Most state departments and agencies provide the first 10 pages for free, then charge 15 cents a copy for more than that, said Michael Smith, a spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell.
Teri Henning, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the group would prefer to limit the fees to 15 cents per copy, but acknowledged that a 2005 state appellate court ruled in a school-board case that 25 cents was not unreasonable.
“Twenty-five cents a page can add up very quickly when you’re talking about hundreds of pages,” Henning said. Although the news media are often associated with the open-records debate, The Associated Press reported in 2005 that Pennsylvania citizens filed far more right-to-know requests than journalists.
The overhaul of the law approved in February followed the 2006 elections, in which two dozen lawmakers were voted out amid a taxpayer revolt over a hefty legislative pay raise rushed through the Legislature in the middle of a summer night in 2005. The lawmakers’ pay raise was later repealed.
The new law will require most government agencies to disclose all records beyond a list of 30 exceptions. It replaces a 50-year-old statute that allows disclosure of only those documents that fit a narrow definition of what constitutes a public record.
Agencies also will be required to defend any decisions to keep records secret, while the current law requires citizens to prove why records should be released.
The office headed by Mutchler, a journalist-turned-lawyer, was created to settle disputes between citizens and government officials over which records should be released. Mutchler previously worked as a state open-records advocate in the Illinois attorney general’s office.
Mutchler said she plans to write a letter urging the judicial and legislative branches to adopt her fee schedule, even though the law does not require it.