June 20, 2021

Jasper County establishes policy for public records request

Fees may be waived by elected officials, department heads

Procedures regarding public records requests in Jasper County have changed.

The board of supervisors on June 1 adopted a new written policy, which — according to its goals stated in a draft obtained by Newton News — is to provide direction on handling public records requests, establish standardized fees and promote consistent compliance with the applicable laws.

Jasper County Attorney Scott Nicholson, who presented the policy to the board of supervisors, said some departments receive public records requests, but they are all handling them differently from one another. Requests can be submitted through an official county form, a letter, an email or a fax.

“So I thought I’d put together a written policy for the departments to follow,” Nicholson said. “Because I think going forward we’re going to see more public records requests from the public, in an effort to be transparent. I put this together. I think I sent it out a couple of weeks ago for any comments.”

Changes were made in pursuant to those comments and then presented to the board of supervisors in its meeting. With the policy officially adopted by supervisors, Nicholson said it can be referred to if there is ever a dispute with a public records request in the future.

All three supervisors agreed a policy was a good idea.

The policy states examples of routine records requests include copies of a customer’s own billing records, meeting minutes, agendas, resolutions and ordinances. Examples of non-routine requests were not included in the policy, but are otherwise vetted through the county attorney’s office.

There are exceptions that protect certain records and documents from public disclosure, the policy states. Federal laws protect certain types of personal information from disclosure unless a law enforcement subpoena is properly served. Some information handled by the county is also confidential.

Jasper County is to respond “promptly and efficiently” with public records requests, which the policy states is normally within 20 calendar days or 10 business days unless certain exceptions exist. If additional time is needed, Jasper County will provide notification via letter, email or fax to the requestor.

Fees may be applied depending on request. Per the policy, basic fees include:

• Copies of paper documents: $0.25 per page of 8.5″ x 11″, black-and-white photocopies; $0.50 per page of 8.5″ x 11″, color photocopies; and $0.75 per page of oversized copies.

• Copies transmitted by fax: $1 per page, limited to 10 pages

• Copies by CD/DVD-ROM: $15 per disc, limited to the capacity of discs

• Thumb drives: Cost based on storage capacity

• Third-party tax statements: $2 per statement, subject to treasurer’s regulations

• Postage for copies mailed: Determined by request. Requestors are required to pre-pay for actual costs of postage. All copies will be sent via certified mail with a return receipt requested.

Elected officials or department heads can still expressly waive the fees associated with public records requests; according to the policy, except where compensation has been waived by elected officials or department heads, the persons requesting public records shall pay the county in advance.

Specifically, to the nearest 0.25 hours (15 minutes) expended for the required time to compile responses to the public records requests. Staff hourly charges will be calculated based the current hourly rate of the department employee who compiles the response, the policy states.

Some elected officials argued the fees should be waived for citizen requests, but that some instances should require compensation.

Jasper County Auditor Dennis Parrott said when he first started working for the county, associated fees were dropped. From what he could see at that time, most of the searches or requests were from local taxpayers. Parrott said they have already paid their fee by paying property taxes.

“Obviously, if this was a major search from a company that was going to use the information, sure … But as far as local taxpayers, I’m not a big fan of fees. I feel like if you’ve paid your taxes you’ve paid for it,” Parrott said, later acknowledging the main reason for the policy is for consistency purposes.

Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty expects the sheriff’s office receives the most public records requests. Halferty said staff will sometimes receive “huge requests for one-two years of a certain incident or calls for service.” Office staff have to search it, make copies, redact some information if necessary.

“It’s not always the media,” he said. “It’s usually some off-shoot research group or something. I’m not opposed to having an opportunity to waive the fee, but I can also tell you I think we need to be able to charge in certain circumstances. It does take away a lot of our staff time to research those requests.”

To examine or copy public records requires supervisor by a lawful custodian of the records or their designee. Unless arrangements have been made with elected officials or a department head, records will be available to review for one week after the initial request has been made.

Requestors may incur additional charges if they do not review the original records within that one-week timeframe and require staff to re-search, re-prepare or re-retrieve the public records. Any costs not covered by the fee scheduled shall be charged to requestors based on costs incurred by the department.

All charges are cumulative “to the extent they reflect the actual cost to the county department.” Which means a one-page, black-and-white document that takes 30 minutes to locate, copy and mail will include charges for the retrieval services at a staff rate, $0.25 for the photocopy and postage for certified mail delivery.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.