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Mayor Jerry Sanders wants to charge more money for public records, adding another hurdle for the public to get information about the inner workings of San Diego’s city government.

A little-known proposal working its way through City Hall would add fees for copies of public records like PDFs and computer data. Today, these records are often provided for free.

The city is required under state law to provide copies of many records upon request. Legislators argued long ago and the courts have upheld since that this process is crucial to public accountability of government. News media and other watchdogs rely on it daily.

While the city must release records, the law also provides discretion to recoup the cost of making copies. The city gives PDFs and other scanned documents to the public for free. Under Sanders’ proposal, the city would start charging 25 cents per page, the same as it costs today for paper copies.

The proposal has raised concerns from City Clerk Elizabeth Maland, who said the new fee could hamper accessibility to public information. In some cases, Maland predicted the fee could actually end up costing the city more money than it would take in.

“So much of what we’re trying to do is make information more available, accessible, easier for people to get,” Maland told an April 25 City Council committee meeting. “It will slow down our responsiveness in many instances.”

The city would also add a flat rate for electronic copies of computer data, a fee that’s been used by other government agencies as an insurmountable hurdle to effectively allow some information to be kept secret. For example, San Diego County told Voice of San Diego in 2010 that copying data about gang-related crimes from an archaic mainframe would cost roughly $8,000.

Under the mayor’s proposal, eight hours of work would cost $336 (or 70 cents per minute), a charge that would depend entirely on how long it takes the city to copy the data into a readable format. The charge greatly depends on the city’s own competence. Outdated IT systems or poor knowledge of city technology can make copying data a more tedious process and therefore more costly to the public.

Mayoral spokesman Darren Pudgil said the city already charges for PDFs and data today, but doesn’t do it consistently. The new policy would standardize the rates and require the fees across city departments, he said.

“We look at this as a minimal increase. It’s something that just has to be done,” Pudgil said. “We’re not going to take money from other city functions to offset the cost to provide that service.”

By copying records for free, Pudgil argued the city would be tapping funds that could otherwise pay for police, libraries and other core functions. He said the city would do whatever possible to minimize any additional delays to providing PDFs and data.

The step comes from a mayor whose office has at times struggled to comply with the state’s open-records law. Voice of San Diego had to threaten to sue Sanders in 2009 to obtain copies of routine e-mails that had been illegally kept secret.

In statements to Voice of San Diego, all four candidates campaigning to succeed Sanders said they oppose the new fees. Each argued the fees would add barriers to public participation and knowledge of city activities. (Their full statements are posted below.)

We also asked all City Council members for their positions on the mayor’s proposed fees. Aside from DeMaio, only council members Todd Gloria and Kevin Faulconer have replied so far, saying they haven’t made a final decision.

At a City Council committee hearing last month, Mark Leonard, director of the city’s budget department, argued that the city was trying to recover the cost of city staff’s time.

Leonard said workers spend the same amount of time and use the same equipment when making paper copies as they do when they’re scanning documents. Both involve employees walking to a copying machine and pushing a few buttons. That’s time away from conducting other city business, though the sole job of some city workers is to provide the public with information.

With copying data, Leonard said many requests come from companies asking for information that requires a lot of time to research. He said higher-level employees work those requests because they can apply more technical expertise.

None of the council members spoke at length about the proposals. They only asked basic questions or echoed concerns first raised by Maland about charging 25 cents per page for scanned documents.

Maland worried the city might spend more time and resources collecting fees for scanned documents than would be needed to copy the documents themselves. In some cases, she said the cost of collecting the fee would be larger than the fee itself.

Maland also said the invoicing process would further delay the release of public information. Today, her office can scan a document and email it within a matter of minutes. Under the proposal, the office wouldn’t send the document until it had received 25 cents from whoever requested it.

Maland also said the fee would discourage the City Council’s paperless push. She’s worried that providing paper and electronic documents for the same price would take away a key incentive to move away from paper.

Pudgil said the mayor is committed to transparency and has supported making more information available online. But he acknowledged IT systems aren’t always designed with public access in mind.

“We store data to serve our needs and to make it efficient for our employees. We don’t necessarily store data to make it easy for the public to access,” Pudgil said. “When somebody does want a special program with certain fields of data, it is going to take a little longer and that person is going to need to pay for it.”

The council committee approved the hike, but it must still be approved by the full City Council, which is expected to discuss it in mid-June.

The Mayoral Candidates on the Fees

• City Councilman Carl DeMaio:

I oppose this fee hike. We should be promoting greater transparency and sharing of City information with the public. Billing taxpayers for information stifles their participation and understanding of our government.

• District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis:

I have stated all along that I don’t support adding any new fees and this is no different. I believe we can minimize the number of employees and staff hours it takes to provide information by putting as much as possible online in the first place. The policy would charge a fee for retrieval of information that is already stored in electronic format. Why not make that available so the public can retrieve it themselves? Prop A would require the City to post all contracts online, and that’s a good start. We need to minimize the cost of providing information first, not create new fees.

• Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher:

I don’t support the new fees. Public access to city documents shouldn’t be limited by fees and unfortunately not everyone has access to a computer to view them online. I released a full transparency plan to increase access to public documents and make the process more efficient.

• In an interview late Thursday, Congressman Bob Filner said he opposed the new fees. “It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s wrong,” he told news reporter Liam Dillon. “We should be encouraging transparency not making it more expensive.” If the City Council approves the fees and he is elected mayor, Filner said he would repeal the fees.

Update: This story has been updated from its original version to include Filner’s opposition to the fees.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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