By CHERY SABOL/The Daily Inter Lake
Government documents available to Montanans as public information are not necessarily free to the public, and agencies charge a wide range of fees for getting the records, a recent statewide survey found.
A project this summer by news organizations to check the ability of citizens to obtain public records sent surveyors into 56 counties seeking city council minutes, property tax records, court files, and information from schools and sheriff's offices.
In some cases, information was there simply for the asking. Offices in 18 counties did not charge a fee for any documents copied for the volunteers conducting the survey.
But the right to get public documents had a hefty price tag elsewhere. The Lewis and Clark County sheriff's office, for instance, charges citizens $5 for every single-page incident report. There are typically 125 to 150 incident reports filed each day. The total price for all of them would be $625 to $750.
Lincoln County also charges $5 for each of its initial offense reports, although it does not collect a fee for a copy of the list of calls handled by the sheriff's office.
Fees for copying court documents are set by law. Fees for other information are generally required to be ''reasonable,'' representing the actual cost of copies.
A 1996 governor's memorandum set the standard fee for state government photocopies at 10-25 cents each. Then-Gov. Marc Racicot pointed out that in some offices where original documents are kept, an employee is needed to supervise anyone looking through records, but there is no authority to charge a fee for simply accessing the information.
The Racicot directive said copying charges depend on a number of factors, including whether copies are made by the requestor or a government employee, how many copies are needed, and whether the information had to be compiled or developed by an employee or is already available in the form requested.
According to the news organizations' survey, no fees were assessed for requested documents in Big Horn, Broadwater, Carbon, Cascade, Chouteau, Daniels, Granite, Hill, Madison, McCone, Park, Phillips, Prairie, Roosevelt, Sanders, Sheridan, Stillwater and Wibaux counties.
City council minutes cost between 15 and 50 cents per page in Garfield, Missoula, Petroleum, Powder River, Rosebud and Yellowstone counties. Only school district offices in Meagher, Mineral, Teton and Wheatland counties charged a fee for copies.
The only sheriff's offices that wanted payment for copies were in Gallatin, Sweet Grass and Lewis and Clark counties. The fees in Gallatin and Sweet Grass counties were 25 cents per page.
The fee of $5 per page that the Lewis and Clark County sheriff's office requires is by far the largest. The sheriff's incident reports are maintained along with the Helena Police Department incident reports in a centralized computer system. The fee for copies of any of the incident reports is set by a special city-county board.
Questions about the fees were referred to Helena Police Lt. Roger Johnson. He said the fee reflects the fact that the incident reports are not simply copied, but must be reviewed and certain information blacked out before a separate edited version is given to the public. Information that is blacked out may include the names of juveniles or victims, Johnson said.
He said the board compared its costs with some other counties this year and was satisfied that the fees are not out of line, even though most other counties did not charge at all.
District Court fees are set by state law. However, the media survey found that the charges still varied considerably and, in some cases, were not charged at all.