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Marin County Supervisors want to restrict access to public records by raising the cost

UPDATE: Due to the public outcry that resulted from the publication of this article, the Marin Board of Supervisors removed the "PRA" fee provision from the ordinance at their hearing this morning, August 22, 2017. Thanks to all community members who let their voices be heard.

In this County’s seemingly never-ending quest to avoid public transparency and meaningful public interaction, the Marin Board of Supervisors is now considering a new ordinance to make it more expensive (and therefore more difficult) for taxpayers to obtain information about what our government is doing, using the Public Records Act.

Please see: Item 11, August 22, 2017 Agenda.

This is a purely discretionary decision on their part and there is no evidence whatsoever that those requesting access to public records are creating a financial hardship for the County.

In addition to currently charging 25 cents per page for copies of any public document (when the actual cost is far less), the County is now proposing to charge $114.63 per hour for staff time to copy or print out any public records requested.

For a typical public records request on a single government action or activity within a single department, this could potentially cost several hundred dollars in extra fees. For a request on a more complex issue, such as planning and development, or in doing investigative journalism or researching a potential violation of the law, this could potentially add thousands of dollars in extra fees.

The proposal would bring in significant revenues to the County and they could be increased at any time. The ordinance states:

If approved, the proposed service fees and rates will result in estimated additional revenues of $120,000. These hourly rates and service fees are… subject to change based on corresponding changes in underlying indirect and/or direct costs, with the approval of your Board.

Can they do this, legally? In order to answer that, we look to organizations such as the First Amendment Coalition and their recent article on the subject.

Should they do this? Should our County be throwing obstacles in the path of the public’s right to know, claiming financial hardship, while among many other things they continue to throw away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on things like their “community grants” slush fund, which even the Marin Grand Jury has admonished them for?

What century is this?

What adds insult to injury is that we live in an age where information is becoming more and more ubiquitous and its costs are coming down, dramatically, due to advancements in data storage and retrieval. But, instead of investing in new technology to digitize and catalog their vast amounts of public records, our local governments are furiously clinging to an outdated, paper copy world, and demanding that we taxpayers foot the bill for their derelict management of their operations.

The Supervisors need to hear your voices on this proposal.

More and more it seems as if the County (and other Marin cities, who are eagerly watching this unfold) is spending all their energy trying to find loopholes in the law in order to shut out public scrutiny and discourse and avoid authentic public engagement, rather than working to more effectively and efficiently serve the public.

“Public engagement” is increasingly only defined as carefully orchestrated, long arm's length "workshops,” run by highly paid, professional facilitators.

A copy of the proposed ordinance is found by CLICKING HERE.

FOOTNOTE: $115 per hour translates roughly into a County employee being paid $240,000 per year to make copies.