Click photo to enlarge
Seventy cents. (Illustration by Steve Dempsey/Staff)

Call this the story of 70 cents.

Yes, seven dimes. Fourteen nickels. Seventy pennies. One third of the cost of a medium Peet's Coffee.

That's the amount of money that a vice president of public affairs at San Jose State University asked me to send him before he would email a PDF of a whopping seven pages of routine public records.

He demanded I write and mail a check for 70 cents.

This is your government at work, folks, scrounging for pennies and nickels, transparency be damned. We might presume that he'd send the documents before the check cleared the bank, but you never know.

I have had government officials claim I had to pass a police background check to see public documents. I've had them demand to photocopy my driver's license first. I have had them say no for idiotic and often illegal reasons.

But I've never been asked for a check in an amount for less than the cost to process the check in the first place. (In fact, I've had governments waive small fees for just that reason -- there is no public benefit to spending more to process the paperwork than the amount of money coming in.)

But the real rub is this: A public agency's right to charge for copies of documents in the first place is vastly acknowledged under law and government practice in California to be limited to paper copies.


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Claiming there is a charge for simply pushing the send button on email is nothing more than delaying access.

The state constitution is quite specific that government take the most liberal, pro-public position possible when disclosing records. Does quibbling for nickels sound like part of that mandate?

One of the few bright spots in transparency the past few years is that more public officials, recognizing their constitutional duty, have seen the benefit to routinely providing access to routine records via electronic means: emails, drop boxes, Web pages.

One state department recently made nearly 2,000 pages of investigative documents public by placing them on a server where I could download them to my computer. The transaction didn't involve any payments, not even 70 cents.

No agencies, in my experience of managing hundreds of document and data requests a year, try to claim they can charge money for emailing records.

But the California State University system, the policies of which the vice president cited, remains defiant. It seems to shout, "the public will pay in nickels and dimes!" Even for records that exist only in the ether.

It is wrong on so many levels -- especially this: What I had asked for are the most basic public records in the state, the statements of economic interest of three university officials.

These are the annual reports people in government are required to fill out that disclose their financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest. They exist for the express purpose of public disclosure.

If you think these aren't important, consider that an Alameda County Superior Court judge is facing numerous felony charges of perjury for omitting information on several of his statements.

Disclosure is an instant veracity test for public officials -- the more they disclose, the more you can understand about their ethics and honesty.

How quickly and easily government agencies, in turn, release the forms, the more you can understand about their culture of transparency. Or, in the case of San Jose State, the lack thereof.

Nothing requires a government to charge for copies, especially electronic ones. Even with paper copies, nothing also prohibits copy fees from being waived, and they often are.

In fact, a public official's role in releasing public records is only ministerial and they are clearly subordinate to the public. People have a right to expect them to do their routine jobs quickly and efficiently.

A vast majority of them do, working hard to illustrate that their governments are honest and transparent -- that there is nothing to hide, and that is in the public interest to do everything they can to maintain a reputation of transparency.

Like emailing basic records as soon as they are requested and not demanding a check for 70 cents.

Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches a class on public records at UC Berkeley. Contact him at tpeele@bayarenewsgroup.com; follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.