Panel Studies Public Access to State Records

Article excerpt

By Lou Anne Wolfe

Journal Record Staff Reporter

A news reporter requests public information from a state government agency that is in computerized form, and asks that it be copied on a $2 disc supplied by the reporter. The agency refuses, telling the reporter that the data is available only in "hard copy" form that involves several hundred dollars of copying fees.

A citizen wants to review a court case whose records are computerized. How can the court clerk protect the records from alteration?

Those are two of a host of questionable situations involved with public access to electronic government records, the subject of an interim state legislative study.

The Advisory Committee on Access to Machineadable Records met Tuesday for the first time, and is charged with developing recommendations for legislation to establish a state policy on electronic records.

Rep. Danny Williams, D-Seminole, introduced House Bill 2142, which called for the study, and he is committee chairman.

Task of the 12-member panel is to agree on a definition for what would be considered a public record in the area of electronic records. They will look at what kind of access to electronic records should be given to journalists, and what records should be excluded from public scrutiny.

Current cost for hard copies under the state Open Records Act is 25 cents a page. The committee will consider what would be a reasonable cost for access to electronic records, and a process for transferring the information.

"There are no absolutes in this process," Williams said. "We are to find the best solutions, and make recommendations."

Ownership of computer software written by government employees to store governmental data is another issue to be studied, along with a look at whether state and local governments collect more personal information than is needed for the matter at hand.

Approaches by other states will be considered, Williams said. For example, New Mexico employs a publicivate, nonofit organizational structure to disseminate public records, he said.

Georgia's approach is that "they own it, they control it and they decide under what terms and conditions" people get access to it, he said.

Next meeting of the committee is scheduled Sept. 30 at 1:30 p.m. in the State Capitol. Subject for discussion is the attorney general's interpretation of the Open Records Act, and some cost issues.

At a meeting scheduled Oct. 7, the committee will consider a preliminary "framework" for the cost of record retrieval and reproduction. Williams said the costs would be considered "in concept, not dollars. …