Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to getting public record databases isn’t denial; it’s the price tag. In attempts to recover costs or limit access to records, some agencies may want big bucks to give you their data. Although the law varies from state to state, typically you should have to pay only for the cost to reproduce the database. That cost might include the media itself (tapes, CDs or disks). It might also include some programming.
If, upon request for a database from a government agency, you are quoted what seems to be an unreasonable amount, try a few of these techniques to negotiate down the price:
• Ask the agency to itemize the costs.
Sometimes this step alone will bring down the price. The agency should give you the cost of the media and any additional programming costs required. In most states, it cannot charge you overhead.
• Provide your own media.
If an agency is telling you that a blank CD costs $20, see if it will allow you to provide your own CDs or tapes.
• Find out if programming is really required.
Ask for a copy of the record layout for the database. The agency may be writing a program to eliminate particular fields of information. Make it clear you don’t need anything filtered – that you’ll take the whole thing.
• If programming is required, find out what the agency is doing, and see if the charges are realistic.
If the agency does create a program, ask for a copy of the program so the agency doesn’t have to do it over when you request the information in the future. If it is unwilling to do that, ask to be sent a letter stating that the agency created the program.
• For some programming, an agency may not be able to legally charge you.
For example, if a police department says it has to do hours of work to remove juveniles from a database of arrest records, it should not be your burden to pay. If it legally needs to exclude certain records, it should design its system to do so. You should not pay the price for an agency’s poor planning.
• Go to other sources.
While a county may put a big price on a database, it may also send that database to a state agency. Make the same request to the state agency.
• Compare costs.
One county may charge only $20 for something another county wants $800 to provide. Hmmm … might make an interesting story.
• Make a public records request for previous public records requests.
This will show you what the agency charges others who ask for records.
• Know the law in your state and know what an agency may charge for certain records.
Jennifer LaFleur is a McCormick Tribune Journalism Fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.