The “reasonable” cost of public records

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By Colman Herman

The Massachusetts Public Records Law says that government officials can charge a “reasonable fee” for photocopies of public records.  In turn, the regulations promulgated by the secretary of state in support of the public records law interprets “reasonable” to mean up to 20 cents a page.

Flying in the face of that is a City of Boston ordinance that says the city is to charge 50 cents a page for a public record.  With one exception, though, city agencies in Boston correctly abide by the public records regulation and charge 20 cents.

That exception is the city clerk’s office headed up by Rosaria Salerno, who insists on charging 50 cents a page, a price her office just quoted to me for some documents.  This despite the fact that Alan Cote, the supervisor of public records in the secretary of state’s office, told Salerno way back in 2003 that she can only charge a maximum of twenty cents a page.

I talked to Salerno a while ago about her persistence in charging 50 cents a page.  She relies on the public records law allowing a “reasonable fee” and she thinks 50 cents a page is reasonable, as provided by the city ordinance.  When I remind her that state law takes precedence over a city ordinance and that the state regulation says 20 cents a page, she brushes my comments aside.

When I ask Salerno what if the city ordinance called for $5.00 a page, would that be OK, she responds without missing a beat, “That would be ridiculous!”

I guess Rosaria Salerno sees herself as being the arbiter of what’s reasonable here and what isn’t.  Nice work if you can get it.

And by the way, Supervisor of Public Records Cote — the one who told Salerno she can only charge no more than 20 cents a page — himself charges citizens 30 cents a page for public records, saying he has been told to do so by the secretary of administration and finance, although he could produce no documentation to that effect.  And even if he could, what right does the state have to ignore its own law?

Colman Herman is a Boston freelance writer.

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3 Responses to “The “reasonable” cost of public records”

  1. Ned Flaherty Says:

    Government decision-makers who treat public records as their personal, private property are invariably the ones who have the most to hide, and they flout the law and thwart citizen access in a variety of ways.

    Here are some tactics I’ve suffered, and how to handle them.

    REDUCE THE COST. Some agencies demand advance payment of hundreds or thousands of dollars for thousands of pages, knowing that most people will withdraw a request rather than waste a lot of money buying something that’s potentially useless. Remedy: Demand to inspect all pages, in person, before deciding which pages are truly needed. This reduces the final cost, and it often uncovers surprisingly helpful records that otherwise would be missed.

    SKIP THE PRINTING. Some agencies hope that requestors will assume that all records must be expensively photocopied. Remedy: Tell the agency that the desired pages are to be reproduced not in paper form, but in electronic form accessible from an average computer. On a 5,000-page request, you’ll buy a pocket-sized compact disc for $1, instead of 50 pounds of paper for $1,000.

    RECITE YOUR RIGHTS. Some agencies hope that requestors don’t know their rights, and won’t try to use them. Remedy: Be thoroughly familiar with the public records law itself, the state regulations that implement it, and the agency’s specific procedures. Cite the numbers of the statute and the regulations, and cite the specific sections that the agency has violated or is likely to violate. Don’t be afraid to frequently contact senior agency officials, the Board of Directors, and/or outside oversight organizations when anyone is uncooperative.

  2. thezak Says:

    Boston City Clerk and Assistant City Clerk are in denial. New more up to date people familiar with the advances in technology are needed for appointment as Boston City Clerk and Assistant City Clerk.

  3. thezak Says:

    The Honorable Michael P. Ross, Council President, Rules and Administration Committee Chairman
    Boston City Council Rules and Administration Committee
    Massachusetts

    Please send the proposed Boston City Council Rules changes.

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