The relatively new and expanding capability for state and local governments to provide online access to public information is putting some jurisdictions in a bind. As the public continues to press for remote access to records, cash-strapped governments are finding it hard to create these new services without additional revenue.
It costs money to create online access. Some jurisdictions are attempting to solve this by providing public records online for a fee.
Many governments put high-demand public records, such as city council agendas and legislative bills, on the Internet without much fuss. But other public records, such as court or tax files, are generally not being provided freely on the Internet or bulletin boards, in large part because of the cost.
Online access often requires that data be mirrored or duplicated for electronic perusal by the public. Separate databases and firewalls must be created for security and privacy protection. The public does not gain access to the same system government employees use in their daily work.
Private information also must be redacted -- edited or deleted -- to make government-collected information a public record. On older database systems, redaction often must be done by hand.
Setting this up costs money that many jurisdictions don't have. This has led some to arrange partnerships with private firms, such as telecommunications providers, to provide gateways and handle billing.
Another route taken by some jurisdictions is to invest in providing online access, then charge subscriptions to recoup the cost. These two solutions may make sense to governments and some businesses, but not everyone is pleased with these arrangements. And some of the unhappy are taking legal action.
The Los Angeles County Municipal and Superior Courts have begun to provide bulk data transfers to title companies and attorneys for a subscription fee. The county estimates that the service, called Information Access Provider, could earn over $1 million in the first full year of operation.
The program is being challenged in federal court by the Los Angeles Times and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The plaintiffs argue that charging for access creates a tiered system of access to the records, with paper records available for cost of duplication, and modern electronic access available only to those who can pay market prices.
This is especially critical because access to government through public records is a basic pillar of an informed electorate, said Tom Newton, California Newspaper Publishers Association general counsel. Charging fees to gain access to public records "appears to put a financial barrier between people and records," he said.
But Information Access Provider advocates assert that the system
is optional and public access at the courthouses will be better off because online program revenues can be used to purchase additional equipment and free counter personnel to help more customers.
And if the county did not charge a subscription for this service, it wouldn't exist, said John Doktor of Public Sector Marketing Group, which is consulting for the county on the project. "It's not about charging for public access to public records. It is about new services," Doktor said.
Newton said that if the program will only exist with subscriptions, it may not be justified to build it in the first place. A system shouldn't be built unless there is a clear public benefit, such as improved agency efficiency or better public access, he said.
Indianapolis and Marion County are being sued over their subscription-based remote access system by some small businesses which claim that they are priced out of the consolidated local government's online CivicLink system.
Indiana law allows government agencies to charge a "reasonable fee" for enhanced access. Paper copies and computer downloads at government service counters are still made for the