A bill that would help ensure reasonable fees for public records requests advanced in the Nebraska Unicameral Monday on a 35-1 vote.LB 363, introduced by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, would close a loophole by which some state agencies and public entities have taken advantage of people by charging large amounts of money for public records, Avery said.
Sen. Scott Price gave the example of a person in his hometown of Bellevue being charged more than $600 for 14 pieces of paper because of the legal costs that the entity said would be required for the record retrieval.
People already pay for these public services, Price said.
“We the people are paying for our public servants, just like ourselves, to do their job,” he said. “If in the course of your job, you do your job, you shouldn’t be able to bill it again. In a way that’s like a double billing. I don’t believe that’s what we’re in the business of in public service.”
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said the issue was a matter of principle in that it would be wrong to keep from the public records that entities are entrusted to hold.
“One of the worst places where public officials offend is when they hold information from the public,” he said.
Under the bill, a requestor would be charged only if the time it took to research, retrieve and copy the records took more than six hours.
Because of the six-hour allowance, some senators were concerned that rural offices with small staffs would be stretched thin trying to do other duties while meeting public records request demands.
“Some of these counties only have one person in the office,” Sen Tyson Larson of O’Neill said.
This concern prompted Larson to offer an amendment, which he later withdrew, that would require offices to spend only one hour obtaining public records for free.
Avery said that the six-hour time did not have to be allotted to staff in one day and the hours could be divided among staff members.
Avery compromised and offered an amendment to reduce the time to four hours, which was approved..
Chambers, who supported the bill, said Avery didn’t need to compromise to accommodate the convenience of a few counties’ offices before the public’s right to records.
“I’m not in favor of giving the big wrongdoers a pass to protect some smaller counties,” he said.