The Routt County Clerk and Recorder's Office's response to a new law lowering the cost for copies of public records was disappointing.
The law - Senate Bill 45, overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature this year - went into effect this week. It lowers the cost record keepers can charge for copies of public records to no more than 25 cents per page. Previously, state law had allowed record keepers to charge up to $1.25 per page, the highest rate of any state in the country.
To be fair, Clerk Kay Weinland's office was affected by the law more than any other agency in the county. The clerk's office handled more than 18,500 requests for copies of public records in the past 12 months alone, meaning the new law could have an impact of nearly $20,000 a year on clerk's office revenues.
Still, we were shocked by Weinland's negative response to Senate Bill 45. She said the costs of the new law would be passed on to taxpayers. Her office implemented new fees (Weinland said the fees were simply what's allowed by law and were not in response to Senate Bill 45). She said 25 cents per copy does not cover her costs for retrieving and providing public records. Also, she said the majority of the requests in her office are for real estate records sought by for-profit businesses.
"Maintaining the equipment, along with the retrieval and research conducted by my staff takes time," she said. "We've got to find a way to make up for this loss (of funds). This is something that moved right through the Legislature, and I don't think they gave it much thought."
But Weinland's concerns about the financial impact on her office are, we believe, misplaced. The clerk's office has no business trying to generate revenues by charging the public for records the public already owns. We don't believe it costs 25 cents to make a copy of a public record, much less $1.25.
Weinland said "the retrieval and research conducted by my staff takes time." But the law still allows her office to charge a "reasonable fee" - separate from the 25 cents per page - for more time-consuming records requests. Senate Bill 45 initially capped that fee at $15 per hour, but the Colorado County Clerks Association successfully lobbied to have that provision removed. Currently, the Routt County Clerk's Office charges $25 per hour for the labor required on such requests, though Weinland said her office rarely assesses that fee.
Also, it's irrelevant that most of the public records requests are from profitable business interests. It's not the clerk's office's business who is accessing public records or why they're accessing them.
Finally, we disagree with Weinland's statement that the Legislature didn't give this bill much thought. Senate Bill 45, which was sponsored by Republican state Sen. Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs, was approved unanimously in the Senate, 67-3 in the House and was signed quickly by Gov. Bill Ritter. Such overwhelming support underscores how necessary - and how right - this change was.
Public records belong to the public, and the clerk's office should be doing back flips to make access to those records as easy and as inexpensive as possible. Anything less than that is a disservice.