Public Information: If You Have to Ask, You Can’t Afford It. . . .
Here’s a rather uncontroversial idea: public information should be public. That is, information, records, and data collected and maintained by public entities should be open, accessible, and affordable. For example, if citizens want to know how their mayor spent public funds during a business trip, that information should be available upon request.
But some public entities don’t want their records and data to be open, accessible, and affordable. Or at least not when they can charge exorbitant fees for their data.
Show Me Institute analysts have written about instances when public agencies have tried to charge huge fees for public information. A recent case involved the University of Missouri asking for more than $80,000 for documents related to university researchers blinding and killing a half-dozen puppies.
I write this because we’ve come across two more instances (thankfully less grisly) of ridiculous fees being charged for public data.
The current culprits are Clay and Platte counties. I recently requested a simple data pull—one that would require an hour or two of time from a single clerk—and was told that it would cost me thousands of dollars. Clay County wanted $2,399 for the data, and Platte’s going rate was $1,263!
Yet Jackson County, just south of Clay and Platte counties, fulfilled an identical request for just $25. Clay and Platte counties don’t incur any more costs than Jackson County does in reproducing the data, so why do they charge 9500% and 5000% more, respectively?
The requested data is geospatial in nature (it’s about property values), and state law allows public entities to charge fees for it. Unfortunately, some public entities have used the law to impose massive and seemingly unnecessary fees on taxpayers in search of basic (and digitally available) information—information that should be easily accessible and affordable under Missouri’s Sunshine law..
There is no good reason why public entities should make nonconfidential, public information effectively inaccessible. If government is going to be accountable to residents and taxpayers, its data and records need to be readily available to those it serves. We’re grateful that Jackson County complied with the spirit of the open records laws and are hopeful that Clay and Platte counties will do the same.