The City Council approved a plan Monday afternoon that will make copies of some government records more costly, but rejected Mayor Jerry Sanders’ push to go even further.
The council denied Sanders’ effort to create uniform fees for copies of computer data and scanned documents. It approved a proposal to standardize an existing fee for copies of paper documents, increasing the fee in some cases.
Councilman Todd Gloria argued the new fees would’ve had a chilling effect on public oversight of city government. Attorneys, news media and other watchdogs rely on public records daily to report and analyze the inner workings of government.
“I don’t think you’re accurately figuring out the actual costs in terms of public distrust when it comes to assigning this particular fee,” Gloria told city staff. “Whatever revenue we may gain, we will lose in public trust and I don’t think that’s worthwhile.”
Before the vote, fees for paper copies varied across city offices. Some charged 25 cents per page, some 20 cents and some less. The council approved a citywide standard of 25 cents per page.
The city studied the cost of copying paper and found the 25-cent fee would more fully recover the cost of staff time and paper. Officials similarly studied the cost of copying data and scanning documents, but council members argued those analyses were flawed.
Council members also grilled city officials on the lack of information about the financial impact of the new fees. Before the meeting, Gloria and other council members had requested estimates of how much money was collected with current fees and how much would be collected next year under the proposal. City staff provided none.
Council President Tony Young asked Mark Leonard, the city’s top budget official, how much money the new fees would generate. Leonard said it would not be a significant amount, but added that the city hadn’t tracked fees in the past and therefore had no foundation to make an estimate.
“We estimate here all the time, but we didn’t do that,” a frustrated Young said.
“No,” Leonard confirmed.
Councilwoman Lorie Zapf showed the only unease about rejecting the new fees. She raised concern that commercial or legal interests might exploit free access to public records and overwhelm the city with requests for information.
“I know quite a bit of that occurs at the City Attorney’s Office,” Leonard told Zapf.
Zapf suggested providing information for free only to news media, but a city attorney said exclusive treatment for one group wasn’t allowed. Zapf then gave up on the idea.
The public records fees were part of a package of proposed changes to fees for various city services. After removing the new fees for data and scanned documents, the council approved the package with Councilman Carl DeMaio dissenting.
Explaining his vote, DeMaio cited his favorite topic — city pensions. Many of the fees were calculated using employee salary and benefits. DeMaio said he couldn’t support the fees until benefits are brought in line with the private market.
The mayor argued the new fees aimed to recover the costs of providing copies of city records, which state laws say must be made available upon request. By providing copies for free, Sanders said, the city was siphoning funds from other services like police, libraries and parks.
His proposals quietly moved through City Hall until we wrote about them last month. The public outcry was immediate. All four candidates for mayor at the time opposed the proposals, and a U-T San Diego columnist urged readers to join him in taking a stand against the proposed fee for scanned documents.
Under Sanders’ proposal, the city would’ve started charging 25 cents per page for scanning documents and 70 cents per minute for copying data.
After Monday’s vote, it’s unclear whether rejecting the new fees will maintain the status quo or make the city stop charging for data or scanned documents altogether. Right now, the city charges in certain circumstances. The Mayor’s Office had sought to make the policy uniform.
Mayoral spokesman Darren Pudgil did not return a message seeking clarification on the issue before deadline. If I hear back from him, I’ll update this post.
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