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Other Editors Say…

Government Gouging: Imposing Fees On Those Who Print Public Records From The Internet Is Wrong

Ohio’s county recorders are hoping to slip a change into a law to let them charge fees when people use their own home and office equipment to print documents from county recorders’ websites.

The legislature should toss this proposal into its already overflowing dustbin of bad ideas and resist any further consideration.

In each county, the recorder office is a repository for legal documents, including deeds, mortgages and other property records.

Among its duties is keeping military-service records needed to obtain veterans’ benefits.

And in Franklin County, power-of-attorney documents can be obtained in the middle of the night, if needed, by hospitals.

The amendment to House Bill 247 proposed by the Ohio Recorders’ Association would allow recorder offices to charge as much as $2 per page for records printed off their websites.

Frequent users– banks, realtors, attorneys, title companies and regular Joes– could “save” by buying an annual subscription, capped at $500, to print an unlimited number of copies.

That’s generous, offering the public a bulk rate for records it already owns and that members print out at their own expense. Recorders don’t own the documents they archive. The records belong to the public; government is merely the caretaker.

Taxes and fees already pay for recorder-office salaries and equipment to scan, archive, and make these vital documents available on the Internet.

This makes the proposed charge even more mind-boggling: By searching for and printing records themselves, users of a recorder’s website require no assistance from recorder-office staff and use no recorder office equipment.

Far from costing the recorder anything, website users are saving the recorder staff time, equipment and money.

“There is zero additional cost to the governmental body that would erect a pay barrier between viewing and printing,” writes Dennis R. Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, in a letter dated on Thursday, Nov. 29, to the Ohio Senate opposing the amendment.

Further, the proposed amendment would set in motion a demand from other government offices to impose similar website printing fees.

The justifications simply don’t outweigh the problems.

Take for instance the argument that users of these records easily can afford the fee.

Other than the practical reality that businesses will simply pass along the charge to their customers, this violates the very concept of public records.

“One of the foundational underpinnings of any public records law,” Hetzel writes, “is that the reason, purpose or financial resources of the requestor not be a barrier” to acces the public records.

The Internet has revolutionized the average citizen’s access to public records.

No longer must one trek to the courthouse, pay for parking and navigate a maze of government offices. The Web has closed the distance between the people and their government.

This proposed amendment would be a step backward, would establish an Internet toll and is an attempt to double bill the public. It should be killed.–Columbus Dispatch

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