We have traditionally had two inescapable realities in life: death and taxes. Well, you can add to that list: death, taxes and fees. Fortunately, this past week at least one kind of fee was said to be improperly levied. It’s one charged to you for keeping tabs on your government.
The state attorney general issued a legal opinion on Monday that struck deep in the heart of a fee that, for important reasons, shouldn’t be paid in the first place.
If you believe that your taxes paid to set up your government also pay for the documentation of what said government does with those dollars, well, then you should have a problem paying a fee to see that documentation.
And yet, that’s what government does at all levels: federal, state, local. You want to see a copy of something that says how much and where your government is spending those tax dollars and often there’s a per-page fee.
These fees vary. Some agencies have had a history of charging you not only to take a copy of the document you want with you, but also just for looking at it and giving it back to them there at the counter.
The argument that many public agencies make in defense of this practice goes like this: It costs money to go and get documents for the public to examine and we need to recoup those costs. So we charge fees.
But in a democracy, the role of the citizen in monitoring his or her government as a check on its vast power is inherent, because an ignorant electorate is incapable of properly engaging that check on government authority. It shouldn’t cost the boss to check on what the employees are doing with the boss’ money.
Attorney General Tom Horne’s opinion states that if you only wish to look at a public record and not take the government’s copy with you — even if the agency had to make a copy in order to show it to you — you may not be charged a fee. Fees charged in some agencies have amounted to 25 or 50 cents or even as much as a $1 a page, which adds up to quite a sum if there are many documents you want to examine.
Moreover, Horne stated, if you want to take photos of records with your smartphone, small camera or portable scanner, you may do so without fees being charged so long as your copying does not interfere with the course of business in that office. Some agencies have been charging requesters for using their phones to photograph documents, as if it somehow is a cost they are bearing.
Fees may still be charged for copies you want to take with you, but the Legislature and the courts should evaluate those fees in relation to the actual cost of the copies for which they are charged.
David Cuillier, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, wrote a column for SPJ’s magazine, Quill, in 2009 in which he calculated the cost of a government-produced 8 11/2- by 11-inch page.
Cuillier factored in the price of a heavy-duty copier, ink and toner, paper and electricity and concluded that the cost was no more than 1 1/2 cents per page. Paying the employees and for the public building they work in doesn’t count; our taxes are paying for those anyway for all the other things government workers do.
“That’s why the copy store down the street from my office can charge 3 cents a page for black and white copies and still make a profit,” Cuillier told me Wednesday in an email. “Of course, letting someone take a picture of a document costs nothing.”
If the copy place in Cuillier’s Tucson neighborhood can do it for 3 cents, why should government charge any more than a nickel for the take-home version of public records?
“The people’s records should be available at little or no cost,” Cuillier said. “We paid for their creation and it’s immoral to price poor people out of their government.”
You don’t have to be poor to feel gouged by fees that shouldn’t be charged, particularly when they are being charged to someone – you – who has every right to know what the government is doing with her or her taxes, and through them has already paid for the privilege of knowing that.
Horne’s opinion, though legally non-binding, is persuasive to those who can enact and interpret law, and is a refreshing step forward. Our lawmakers and courts need to take the next step in reducing or, it is hoped, eliminating requiring cash payments of people who exercise a vital function of citizenship.
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at email@example.com.