Kanawha's copying fees questioned
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County Clerk's office levies a charge on residents wanting to get copies of documents on file in the office, and some believe the payment is much too high.
The clerks charge $1.50 for the first two pages of documents, such as financial reports for county political candidates, and a $1 for each page after that, County Clerk Vera McCormick said.
The director of the West Virginia Press Association says the charge is too high and could deter people from obtaining information that belongs to the public.
"That does seem to be very expensive," said Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association.
McCormick said the clerk's office is only following state code, which sets the charges for copies of documents.
"We go by what the code tells us, whether we agree with it or not," she said.
State Code 59-1-10 outlines the charges for copies of all documents at the county clerk's office. However, Smith pointed to another section of code, commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act, states a "reasonable charge," should be levied on copies of all documents.
"The public body may establish fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it for its actual cost in making reproductions of such records," the code section reads.
"My interpretation of that is that it means the actual cost," Smith said.
The actual cost of reproducing the documents would cover such expenditures as paper and ink, he said.
"It's very hard for me to buy that the printing of a page costs $1," Smith said.
The code outlining the cost of providing copies has been in existence for years and has been amended from time to time, said Philip Reale, West Virginia Press Association attorney.
The charges are typically accepted by professions that use copies, he said.
"The practice of charging what is charged under 59-1-10 has been accepted universally by lawyers, realtors, leasing agents and others for decades," Reale said.
However, in 2008, Marion County Circuit Court Judge David Janes ruled that officials in a small town could only charge 25 cents per page for copies. The case began when the former Rivesville recorder made numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for documents from the town.
The Town of Rivesville leaders then passed an ordinance levying a 75-cent per page charge for all copies. Janes came up with the 25-cent charge when city officials told him that was the actual cost of making the reproductions.
"It probably never came up," he said.
Chapter 59 of the state code was not considered in the case, Janes said.
Janes would not offer an opinion as to whether the Freedom of Information Act takes precedence over the other section of state code.
The cost of copies also has an effect on the county's bottom line as well, Reale said.
"The impact of lost revenue in the county clerk's office for copies to offset the administrative costs associated with making copies available to the public would likely lead to new legislation making it abundantly clear as to the propriety of the price schedule now being used," he added.
Last fiscal year, the Kanawha County Clerk's office generated about $253,000 from copies made, Chief Deputy County Clerk David Dodd said. That money is transferred to the county's general fund, he said.
The office's budget is about $2 million, Dodd said.
Copies of documents from the Kanawha County Circuit Clerk's office cost $1 a page, said Cathy Gatson, circuit clerk. This is also set by state code, she said.
Gatson was unsure why her office is permitted to charge less for the first page of copies.
"It may be because court documents are longer than documents you get from the county clerk," she said.
There is a process where litigants in a case can apply to have the fee waived, she said.
The director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Al Cross, also believes the charges being levied in Kanawha County are too high.
"It's ridiculous for a government agency to charge that kind of money," he said. "It looks like the residents of Kanawha County are getting it in the neck when it comes to getting public documents."
"The Legislature ought to change the law," he added.
The cost of obtaining records could be so high as to discourage citizens from attempting to copy the documents, he said. These are the same citizens who own the documents in the first place, Cross said.
"They (documents) should be provided at the simple cost of the copies themselves," he said.
The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is based at the University of Kentucky. However, the organization has partners at 25 other universities, including Marshall University and West Virginia University.
Cross was a political writer at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., for 16 years. He has been credited with helping the newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize in 1989. He was at the newspaper for a total of 26 years.
However, the cost of obtaining documents from courthouses isn't an issue for journalists alone, he said.
"This shouldn't be seen as an issue for journalists, but the general public as well," he said.
Former president of the Society of Professional Journalists Kevin Smith also believes the cost of obtaining copies is much too high.
"I don't think $1 a page is reasonable," he said. "What they're (Kanawha County) charging is excessive."
Like Cross, Smith believes the price could be a deterrent to citizens attempting to obtain access to information.
"The average newspaper can afford to pay $1 a page," Smith said. "But the average citizen can't afford to get a significant amount of documents for $1 a page."
Smith has been practicing journalism for 33 years. He was the managing editor for the Times West Virginian in Fairmont for two years. He was also president of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2009-2010.
He now teaches journalism at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. He has also taught journalism at Fairmont State University and James Madison University in Virginia.
Other counties' charges are similar to Kanawha County's.
Putnam County also charges $1.50 for the first two pages and $1 for every other page, County Clerk Brian Wood said.
Copy charges are also based on the fact that staff members have to find the documents and that county equipment is also being used to make the copies, Wood said.
When asked if residents should pay for copies because county equipment is being used when they already pay taxes to cover the cost of that equipment, Wood answered, "I would say they should take a fine tooth comb to see where their tax dollars are going."
Fayette County also charges the same amount for copies of documents, County Clerk Kelvin Holliday said.
"I personally think that fee is reasonable," he said.
However, Holliday added that he would work with an individual if they did not have the money to pay for the documents.
"If someone comes in and they're destitute and don't have $1.50 for a copy, then I'll just give it to them," he said.
Holliday pointed out that his family owned three newspapers in the area, the Fayette Tribune, the Montgomery Herald and the Meadow River Post.
"I'm a former newspaper man myself, but I feel the fee is fair," he said. "But I'll take less."
The West Virginia Secretary of State charges $1 for the first page and 50 cents for each additional page of copies.
This is also set forth in state code, said Jake Glance, spokesman for West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.