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Neb. lawmakers begin debate on public records bill

Grant Schulte, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska lawmakers started a debate Friday over how much cities, counties and state agencies can charge for copies of public records.

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln presented his bill to the full Legislature. He said his office has received complaints that governments were charging hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for copies of public records.

"Public records are owned by the people," Avery said. "The public entities that manage those records are the custodians — not the owners."

The measure makes clear that local governments can charge a fee for making copies, based on a reasonable calculation of the actual cost of paper, toner and equipment. But the bill would prohibit governments to charge for employees' salaries during the first six hours it takes to fulfill the request. Beyond those six hours, local governments could impose a special labor charge.

Avery said the wording was included after cities raised concerns about "voluminous requests" intended to harass public officials. But his proposal would prohibit local governments from charging for a review that seeks a legal basis to withhold the records.

Requesters would have 10 days to review the estimated cost of a records request to negotiate with officials, or to narrow or withdraw their request. If the requester fails to respond within 10 days, the local government wouldn't have to fulfill the request.

Nebraska's current open records law requires public offices to allow people to inspect public documents for free, with a few exceptions for things such as personnel issues. Governments are allowed to charge for the time required to collect, scan or redact public records.

Avery said his bill was changed several times to address concerns raised by the League of Nebraska Municipalities and the Nebraska Association of County Officials, which represents local governments throughout Nebraska. The measure is supported by Common Cause Nebraska, a group that advocates for government transparency, as well as media organizations, newspapers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.

Jack Gould, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, said his group heard has from private citizens, lawyers and reporters who were quoted prices of more than $1,000 after filing open-records requests.

"If you're charging exorbitant amounts, like $1 a page, then there's something wrong," Gould said. "This bill is a good bill. It's isn't all that I would like to have seen, personally. But it helps the press, it helps the public, and the Legislature needs to respond in a positive way to it."

Some smaller counties have since raised concerns about the six-hour requirement, saying it could create a burden for some offices that have only one staff member.

"Larger counties, quite frankly, have the resources and additional staff to do the work when it's called upon them. But when you have a county office that has one individual, maybe two at the most, and you're asking them for six hours of work before they start charging, that's nearly a full day of work," said Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids.

But Avery said the six-hour requirement was meant to meet concerns of smaller offices that fear they could be overwhelmed by large requests. He said he agreed to the six-hour rule "very reluctantly."

"This was a long, difficult and painful negotiation," Avery said. "Frankly, a lot of these public entities didn't want any change in the law at all."

Avery said his bill would also give local governments the leeway to post public documents online, so they could simply direct a requester to the website.

Sen. Erie Chambers of Omaha said many local governments and state agencies use the current state law to escape public scrutiny and avoid the work required to comply with the requests.

Lawmakers did not get to a vote Friday before they adjourned for the day. Debate will continue Monday.


The bill is LB363