The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA for short) was signed into law by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller on February 14, 1967. The intent of FOIA was keep governmental records open and accessible to the people of Arkansas, not just journalists, but for everyone, including former everyday journalists such as myself.
Case in point, recently I was involved in a minor automobile accident on Main Street in Heber Springs. Needing the police report to proceed with my insurance claim, I went to the city of Heber Springs Police Department and paid $10 for the 12-page copy of my report.
Now that may not seem like a very big deal because we have to pay for just about everything these days, but in reality, it is a very big deal. With the exception of ongoing investigations, police reports are public records.
According the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act:
§ 25-19-105 - Examination and copying of public records
(3) (A) (i) Except as provided in 25-19-109 or by law, any fee for copies shall not exceed the actual costs of reproduction, including the costs of the medium of reproduction, supplies, equipment, and maintenance, but not including existing agency personnel time associated with searching for, retrieving, reviewing, or copying the records.
So for a 12-page report, I was charged more than 80 cents per page. Now the city may say that 80 cents per page is a reasonable cost. However, a printing business in town only charges 8 cents per copy, and it is a for profit enterprise. So it’s not hard to do the math on how unreasonable the cost is, and regardless of any city ordinance that may set the fees at $10 per accident report, the city is making a hefty profit off of public records which is clear a violation of FOIA.
The city also has to make the public record (in this case a police report) available for public inspection. If you so choose to have a copy, the city then can charge you a reasonable fee for making copies, but the city cannot stop anyone from seeing the report without having to pay for it. Now, clearly in hindsight, I should have asked to see it and then took pictures of it with my phone (which is legal to do), but I didn’t. I just paid for it as most do and went about my day.
My intent is not to call out the city of Heber Springs or the Police Department specifically, since I did not check with the fees/charges at other city or county departments, and this may be common practice elsewhere too so I don’t know. Also my intent is not to call out any elected officials, nor any of the fine, hard-working employees of the city, but what I hope to accomplish with this letter, is that the city leaders realize that they are in clear violation of FOIA and rectify this wrong as soon as possible. Public records belong to the people, with reasonable exceptions, and they are not tools for profit for the government even if it’s only 80 cents per page.