The $273.25 CD: The Public Records Process in Central

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CENTRAL FIRST BLUE b    Like most of you, I have a collection of CDs.  Most of them are albums of my favorite music, but my most valuable CD is one I recently bought from the City of Central… for $273.25.
    I have learned the hard way about the city’s responsibilities under Louisiana’s Public Records law. I always expected the city to already know the law, but now I don’t believe they do.
    A quick explanation of the process: A citizen fills out a form asking to view one or more public records.  The city then produces the record and allows the citizen to look at it.  If the citizen wants a copy, the city may charge for the cost to copy that record and hand it to the citizen.
    In my case, I asked to view the communications between the City of Central and the developer of the Shoe Creek TND. When I arrived to view the records, there was a CD, and on the CD were several hundred emails with attachments. In total, there were 1,073 page images on the CD.
    Reviewing that much data would take hours, so I asked to pay for a copy of the CD.  I had previously paid five dollars each for copies of CDs of the audio of public meetings, but the city wanted $273.25 for this CD.  They explained that copy of the CD itself was only five dollars, but that I was being charged 25 cents per page for the 1,073 pages of documents ON the CD, bringing the total to $273.25.
    I explained that $5 for the CD was fair, but I did not think they were allowed to charge for what was ON the CD.  They said those were the rules and that if I wanted the CD I had to pay, so I paid $273.25 for the CD.  I put it with the four other CDs Public Records for which I paid Central $160, and I now own the 5-CD “Boxed Set” for only $433.25.
    Louisiana’s Public Records law at LA R.S. 44:32 states: “The custodian may establish and collect reasonable fees for making copies of public records.” Not believing that $273.25 is a reasonable charge for a CD, I read how the court interprets “reasonable fees”.
    In 1994, Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal stated: “The statute clearly limits the fee which a custodian may collect for providing copies of public records to a reasonable fee for making the copies. This fee does not include the original cost of generation of the information or the actual value of the information. It does include, at a minimum, the actual costs for making the copies.”
    I’m not an attorney, but a plain reading of the law and the court’s interpretation leads me to believe that $5 is a “reasonable fee” to copy a CD, but $273.25 is just a tad high.
    Frankly, this whole Public Records fiasco started as an effort to responsibly report, in the newspaper, the actions of Central’s government.  In the process I have found some serious barriers to accessing public records in Central.  I don’t want the next citizen or the next reporter to encounter these same obstacles.
    I hope that the issues I am raising will cause Central’s elected officials to take a hard look at their policies and rules, spend some time reading Louisiana’s Public Records Law, and make some changes.  That would be Good News for a Great City.