Jersey Journal Editorial: Copies of records shouldn't be costly

One assumes that New Jersey's Open Public Meeting Act became law four years ago not to make it easier for government to make a profit when people ask for public records or to make it burdensome by simply making it a costly effort to obtain documents.

Last week, a state appellate court ruled that Edison in Middlesex County placed "an unreasonable burden on the right of access guaranteed by OPRA .Such a policy is not legally sustainable."

The case stems from Edison officials refusing to provide the minutes of a public meeting unless the person requesting them waited a month for the transcript to appear on a municipal Web site or pay $55 for a copy to be placed on a computer diskette.

It should be noted that the court noted that the fee should be limited to "the cost of material and supplies." Labor, time and other costs should not even be considered.

Also last week, state Superior Court Judge Carmen Messano, sitting in Jersey City, ruled that rates Hoboken charges for copying public records for the public are excessive. A suit over the issue was brought by city resident Elizabeth Mason.

Messano said that although Hoboken followed state law that allows charges of up to 75 cents per page for the first 10 pages, it was still too much money and the cost should have been closer to private markets. Local copy shops charge 6 to 9 cents for each page. The judge also threw out the city's $28 charge for blueprints.

While the City Clerk James Farina said he does not charge for a typical open records request unless it is for a substantial amount of information, Hoboken said it will reassess its rate structure.

Mason is correct when she said that she expects the judgment to have statewide ramifications. Her case, and the one in Edison, were decided in the spirit of OPRA - as they should have been. Fees for public records should be reasonable and not an obstacle. Considering recent court rulings, the state Legislature should revise its copying fees, but municipal and county governments should not wait for Trenton to act and review their costs for providing public documents.

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