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City papers: A flawed right-to-know policy

Alderman Bill Barry has proposed a right-to-know policy for the city, which is long overdue. Unfortunately, his proposal would make it harder for citizens to access public information.

The city does not have a written policy detailing how it will comply with the state right-to-know law. Having one is a good idea because it could diffuse arguments and explain to people exactly what they can expect when they come to City Hall to obtain a public record. Barry's draft spells out how the city would respond to requests for public records, what the duties of various employees are, and what records are excluded from disclosure (the law does not cover every record).

The draft has some big flaws, though. For example, the section on the duties of various city employees does not clarify that requests made to department heads, instead of to the city clerk, must receive a response within five days and must be filed within a reasonable amount of time. That is required under law, but the point of having a policy is to explain to both the citizen and the employee how requests must be handled. This falls short.

Barry's proposal also lets the city charge "per page" for electronic copies of documents. The law allows a reasonable charge for copies. It was meant to cover the costs of actual physical copies plus a little extra for the effort. But there is no physical cost to loading a person's zip drive. A per-page charge serves only to raise the price of electronic copies to unreasonable levels, thus discouraging people from obtaining public records.

This proposal needs a lot more work. If adopted as-is, it will impose an unreasonable burden on the public.

Eric Church
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