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Finally, A Sensible Public Records Policy

by Robert Franco | 2008/06/06 reprinted with permission

Bulk Public Records requests have gotten out of hand.  The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has become a tool for modern day gold mining... or perhaps more fitting... data mining.  Companies have been using FOIA to obtain documents for fractions of a cent each.  Finally, one county has set a sensible policy - get it yourself!

According to an article on Gering, Scott's Bluff County, and several other counties have received FOIA requests for every record the county assessor maintains on a monthly basis. The requests are from County Records, Inc. and they indicate the company is willing to pay "reasonable charges" for the information, but it is unlikely that they would consider the counties normal charge of 50 cents per parcel ($11,000/mo) reasonable.

Ramos [the county assessor] said that while the technology exists allowing an outside company to directly access the assessor's database, she would oppose that option.
"People are welcome to retrieve the information themselves..."


County Attorney Derek Weimer told the board he was also concerned about allowing outside agencies access to the county's database. He suggested responding to the request by stating County Records is welcome to all their Public Records via the Internet or by inspecting the documents in the assessor's office. However, the county would not change its records policy or add staff just to meet the request.

"They're welcome to the information just like anyone else," Ramos said. "They'll also be charged the same copying fees that anyone else would. That's consistent and fair."


"These companies profit from the information we supply them, which is okay," said commission chairman Mark Masterton. "This is public information, so people can access it in the way we offer it. We're not going to hire extra personnel to provide them with an alternate way to access the information."


There is speculation that County Records might find the charges unreasonable and appeal the decision to the Nebraska Attorney General.  But, it is not unreasonable to expect them to obtain the records the same way everyone else does... and pay the same fee.  The counties should not be expected to make "special deals" for people who want to buy the records in bulk merely because the technology exists to accommodate them.  If they want information, they can access it on the Internet like everyone else.  Just because they want the information in a special format that would make it easier for them to integrate with their system and re-sell it doesn't mean the county should change its policy. 

This is a perfectly appropriate and reasonable response to the FOIA request.  "Here is a link to our Web site, all of the information you have requested is available there."  If the information can be obtained without the necessity of resorting to a FOIA request at taxpayers expense, the county should have no duty to provide it in another format that is more convenient.  This is especially true when the request is for commercial purposes. 

The FOIA was not intended to be a tool for commercial entities to mine data.  It was intended to ensure that government records were not kept secret; it provides a check and balance on government power.  If the information the county maintains is being made available to the public in another format, that purpose is not thwarted.  Therefore, there should be no special treatment given to greedy corporations that seek to mine counties' Public Records to make a profit.

The laws have not kept up with the technology that is available today. The FOIA is being abused and our legislatures need to put a stop to it. 



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