Watchdog questions public document fees, Hamilton may have overcharged residents for copying

Watchdog questions public document fees
Hamilton may have overcharged residents for copying

Friday, August 18, 2006
The Times

HAMILTON -- Hundreds of residents who have requested public documents from the township clerk's office during the past six years may have been severely overcharged and should be given refunds, a citizens group has charged.

Members of the government watchdog group Citizens Campaign have uncovered a 6-year-old township resolution that calls for charges of 5 cents per page for copies made of public documents held by the clerk's office.

Instead, the township is routinely charging as much as 75 cents per page. Although the higher fee is in keeping with a newer state law that allows for such charges, the lower fee set forth in the 2000 resolution should take precedence, the group maintains.

"What we need to do is encourage citizen participation in government and being able to access public records affordably is a must in terms of allowing people to participate," said resident Joe Fabrizi, who is a member of Citizen's Campaign and a former candidate for council in Hamilton.

The township's 2000 resolution was passed after residents requested copies of the biweekly council agenda package that is provided to council members and the press.

In addition to allowing for 5-cent copies, the ordinance calls for the entire packet to be copied at for $5.

The state law, passed in 2001 with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), allows townships to charge up to 75 cents per page for the first through the 10th page, 50 cents per page for the 11th through the 20th page and 25 cents per page for all copies after that.

Additional fees may be charged if an "extraordinary expenditure of time and effort" is required to copy records.

It is unclear exactly how many requests have been made through the township clerk's office since the resolution was passed in 2000 or how much in total fees the township has charged.

Using an OPRA request, Fabrizi obtained from the township 240 pages of logs, some with multiple entries for copying, so the number of requests is likely in the hundreds, he said.

Township Clerk Jean Chianese did not return a call for comment on the OPRA charges and Attorney Paul Adezio was out of the office and could not be reached. Township spokesman Rich McClellan said he was not familiar with the background of the township or state law and so could not comment.

But in a letter to Fabrizi, Adezio outlined the history of the resolution, and seems to indicate it was originally intended to apply only to the council packets. But in a final note, Adezio tells Fabrizi that his recent OPRA request of the clerk's public records request log was charged at a rate of 5 cents per page.

In April, a state Superior Court judge struck down rates charged by the City of Hoboken to copy public records.

Hoboken had been charging the state-authorized fees, but according to published reports, the judge ruled that the charge should be closer to private rates of 6 to 9 cents per page.

Elizabeth Mason, president of New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, brought the case after she heard complaints about budget documents that were too expensive for the general public to afford.

"The government is the custodian of the public's records," she said. "When the public asks for a copy of its own record, why should the government make a profit on that?"

Mason said that exorbitant costs for records discourages public participation in government because it allows only people with disposable income access to records.

"High costs are a means to keep people out of the process," she said.

Her group is trying to get the Legislature to change the law and reduce the allowed fees, but she is not hopeful that it will be done soon.

She would like to see the state law conform more closely to the federal Freedom of Information Act, which allows for fee waivers in some instances and sets allowed cost for requests from the general public than for requests for commercial uses.

To Fabrizi, the remedy is obvious.

"Refunds are in order and I believe the clerk's office has an obligation to put the public on notice that they are due a refund if they requested copies of documents."

It is not clear if the township will offer refunds to citizens who have requested documents over the past six years.

Township Council President Tom Goodwin said yesterday he had turned the matter over to Adezio after Fabrizi raised it at a recent council meeting. Goodwin said he would speak to Adezio once the attorney returned from vacation.

A spokesman for the Government Records Council, which was formed as the enforcement agency for OPRA, said he could not comment on the fees set out in the state law, because the agency did not set the fees and only enforces the law.

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