Bill reinforces fact public records are public property

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Public records are public property under the care of public entities.

It's something everyone needs to remember, from the citizen on a first encounter with the system to the clerk who deals with public records every day to the elected official in charge of a particular office to the highest offices in the land.

It was a simple matter in the pre-silicon days, when public records were typed or handwritten in files or ledgers, and checking them out was a matter of looking at a physical sheet of paper.

News organizations and other interested parties had to make the point again with the advent of electronic records, and not necessarily because of ill intentions on the part of public officials. Early office computers were rare, expensive and complicated, and plumbing their depths for the wanted records -- not a task for the neophyte.

Widespread computer use and the advent of the Internet has made access easier, but has also made it more important that the governmental entities in charge of those records keep them safe from tampering and make sure only truly public records are made public.

A bill making its way through the Legislature should help make sure public entities don't abuse their right to reasonable reimbursement for public access to public records.

The bill, LB363, keeps state agencies and public entities from charging unreasonable amounts for such access. Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue cited one example where a person was charged more than $600 for 14 pieces of paper because of the legal costs that entity said would be required for the record retrieval.

As always, Sen. Ernie Chambers described the issue eloquently: "One of the worst places where public officials offend is when they hold information from the public."

It is reasonable for some offices, especially small, rural offices, to charge for the staff time it takes to research records, and the latest compromise on LB363 allows them to begin charging after four hours of staff time are accumulated.

But Chambers opposed even that compromise.

"I'm not in favor of giving the big wrongdoers a pass to protect some smaller counties," he said.

Chambers is right, and reinforces our first point: Public records are public property.

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