On Your Side: The cost of public information
A Nevada law on the books makes sure that the public can access certain information. But the cost of those records may keep that paperwork out of the hands of the people who want it.
Public records can promote transparency, keep the public informed and hold public officials accountable.
"I think it's the foundation of democracy," said Holly Welborn, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. "We are a system of government about transparency."
The Nevada Public Records Act is a law that ensures that government documents are available to the public. But getting copies can be expensive.
Most government agencies provide electronic copies for free. Other agencies don't charge for some paper copies. That includes a police report from the Washoe County Sheriff's office and documents from Washoe County -- unless it takes staff more than 30 minutes to produce. There's also no charge at the Washoe County School District, the Regional Transportation Commission and the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. Almost any government department will charge for an extraordinary or lengthy request.
To get a document with 20 pages, it will cost a person only $1 at the Sparks Police Department. That department only charges five cents a copy. The same number of copies will cost $2 at the University of Nevada, Reno. It's $6 from the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority and $7.50 at the City of Reno. It will cost $10 at the Second Judicial District Court in Reno, the City of Sparks and the Carson City Sheriff's Office. The Carson City Treasurer's Office charges $1 per page; meaning, 20 copies would cost $20. The Reno Police Department charges $44 per report.
The ACLU of Nevada said public records should be free unless it's an extraordinary request.
"Especially when it's the general public asking for documentation. It belongs to them anyway. Those requests should be fulfilled for free," said Welborn. "That information belongs to the public, it's ours ... we're paying through our tax dollars so it's almost like a double fee."
The ACLU of Nevada supported Senate Bill 170 last legislative session that would clarify deadlines for open records and waive fees for some requests. Some government agencies testified against it, citing the cost. The bill went nowhere.
The Nevada State Library, Archives and Public Records in Carson City stores government documents of all kinds and makes copies for the public, up to 30 pages for free.
"It costs more to do the paperwork, to deposit the money than it does for us to just make the copies," said Administrator Jeffrey Kintop. "This is the record of the activity of state government."
The cost for information will continue to vary and with no teeth in the law, government agencies won't be fined if they delay or refuse to hand over documents. The only recourse is to sue.