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29.11.09

Fulfilling requests digitally thrift idea worth pursuing

It may have cost the state $13,000, but at least it can learn what needs to be done to ensure greater efficiency particularly needed in these times of budgetary stress.

The state’s First Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that it was not good enough to fulfill a public records request just to place documents available for public inspection on the Internet, and awarded the plaintiff $13,000 in attorney’s fees because the Public Service Commission did not produce public records in a timely fashion. Part of the reason for the delay was the PSC’s contention, since the records in question already were viewable via the Internet, that it had fulfilled the request.

However, the plaintiff wanted paper copies, and the law backed him up. R.S. 44:32 states “it shall be the duty of the custodian of such public records to provide copies to persons so requesting,” even as fees may be charged. Thus, while those kinds of documents can be put out on the Internet, they still have to be provided in paper form on request.

Servicing these requests can take much employee time and some physical resources. It would be much more efficient for each agency that serves as a custodian of public records to place as many records as possible online, create simple web processes by which to access them, and be allowed to fulfill requests this way. For those who claim they do not have access to the Internet, each agency could set up terminals and printers to allow these requestors to come to the agency to get access.

Of course, this would require a change in statute to permit record provision without the state having to hand over a fee-for-service hard copy except those done at the proposed workstation and whichever records for whatever reason cannot be put online. The Legislature also would have to commit to a program of putting all possible state records online and funding the establishment of the workstations.

While this would pass along printer and paper costs to requestors (they already absorb most search costs because of the specificity required in a request), these are relatively small, not even necessary if the downloaded records are used from digital media, and certainly are dwarfed by the costs to taxpayers to fund government to do it, subsidizing a small number of requestors. In fact, they may end up being cheaper for many requestors since the state typically charges much higher fees than it actually costs in terms of printing. These changes need pursuing during the next regular session.

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