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Bill would allow higher fees for FOI requests if for “commercial purposes,” electronic records

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WALLINGFORD — The legislature is considering a bill that would allow municipalities to charge additional fees for Freedom of Information requests that could result in a commercial gain by the requestor.

The proposed bill would also allow public agencies to charge additional fees to cover the costs associated with processing requests for electronic records.

Municipalities said the bill, which was part of a public hearing Monday before the Government Administrations and Elections Committee, would allow them to recover some of the costs associated with the FOI Act.

“It would provide towns with needed revenue outside of further burdening property taxpayers and allow towns to recoup some the cost of when staff take time to process such requests,” said Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Opponents say the bill discourages members of the public from seeking information.

“The principle of trying to selectively charge certain entities if they profit from a government service already paid for with tax dollars is a slippery slope, both within a public records domain and as a principle to apply to any government program,” Richard Varn, executive director for the Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access, said in written testimony.

The bill would let municipalities impose fees for commercially-motivated requests, defined as the “sale, resale, solicitation, rent or lease of a service, or any use by which the user expects a profit either through commission, salary or fee.”

While the bill would specifically exempt for-profit news agencies and lawyers from the “commercial use” fees, Varn questioned why some for-profit entities are exempt and not others, like academics and researchers.

The proposed bill would also allow municipalities to charge additional fees for processing requests for electronic records, including emails, video and audio files. Currently, FOI law doesn’t allow towns to charge for processing information requests but does set costs for copies of documents or reproductions of electronic files.

Cheshire officials asked its legislative delegation to propose the electronic processing fee earlier this year because police said processing electronic records requests has become more time-consuming with the implementation of cruiser and body cameras.

The proposed bill would allow municipalities to charge a fee for electronic records based on the amount of time it takes to retrieve the records and the hourly salary of the employees assigned to fulfilling the request.

Jeffrey Daniels, a legislative co-chair for the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information,  pointed out that a municipality could seek to charge a higher fee by assigning the records search to a higher salary employees as an “artificial means to make the costs prohibitive.”

Some municipalities say they have been financially strained by the increasing numbers of FOI requests they have received in recent years.

Tyisha Toms, an associate city attorney for Bridgeport, submitted testimony for the bill saying the number of requests Bridgeport received jumped from 142 requests in 2015 and 236 requests in 2016 to 582 in 2017.

In response to the growing number of requests, Bridgeport launched an online portal last year where the public can go to submit a records request. The portal costs Bridgeport about $14,000 to maintain.


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