PaFOIC

Beaver Co. Times' open records appeal upheld

By: Bob Bauder | Beaver County Times
The state Office of Open Records this week upheld an appeal by The Beaver County Times of a fee imposed by the State Employees Retirement System for providing information under Pennsylvania’s open-records law.
As part of a story in November, the newspaper submitted a right-to-know request to SERS seeking annual pension amounts for retired state Reps. Mike Veon, Frank LaGrotta and Vic Lescovitz and retired state Sen. Gerald LaValle.
The agency complied but assessed a fee of $14.53, indicating the amount represented the cost of having an employee retrieve the information, check it for accuracy and send it via e-mail to The Times.
According to a time sheet provided by SERS, Deb Murphy, the records custodian, spent 15 minutes completing the task. The $14.53 represented one-fourth of a total $58.11 that Murphy earns in hourly pay and benefits, according to the time sheet.
The open-records law permits “reasonable” fees for such things as copying and postage, but not labor costs incurred while complying with a request.
The Times appealed, contending the fee was wrongly levied.
SERS argued in a 12-page legal brief that state and federal law required it to assess the fee, contending that retirement funds could be used only for purposes benefiting its members.
The Open Records Office disagreed.
“Charging for the time it takes an agency employee to respond to a request during normal business hours is not a proper charge to pass along to a requester,” appeals officer Audrey Buglione said in her ruling issued Monday.
Read the Office of Open Records determination: AP 2009-1014 Bauder vs. SERS
Times Managing Editor Tom Bickert said the decision confirmed the newspaper’s position.
“The issue was never the amount that SERS wanted to charge,” Bickert said. “Rather, it was the attempt by a government agency to charge for public records. Too many agencies seem oblivious to the fact that public records belong to the public, and that providing information is part of their job.”
SERS spokesman Robert Gentzel said the agency believes Buglione erred in her ruling. He said SERS is reviewing it for a possible appeal to state Commonwealth Court.
“Obviously we disagree with the Office of Open Records,” he said. “We believe the law permits and requires in our case that we charge the fees that we charge.”