Archived Story

County mulls better access to public records

Published 9:50pm Monday, July 16, 2012

ST. JOSEPH — July 19 the Berrien County Board of Commissioners considers “enhanced access” to digital public records.

Obtaining electronic information by computer is faster than making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and waiting for documents to be copied on paper.

In fact, online information is a different animal altogether because of its capacity to tweak specific data, which campaigns crave.

The policy itself will be the first step, with fees to follow.

Berrien County charged $1 per page for copies, 25 cents a page for information pertaining to elections. State statutes determine fees for some records.

Corporate counsel Donna Howard told the Administration Committee Thursday that she relied for the four-page draft policy on a 1996 state law about enhanced public record access.

Counties such as Berrien that elect to give online access to public records are allowed to set fees to recover costs.

“FOIA already allows public access to all of our public records,” Howard said.

“This act was put into place to say if you make them available online so they don’t have to come in, the act allows you to do that and, over a span of time, charge fees that (reflect) long-term costs of maintaining computers (and software). It’s ‘enhanced’ because the public doesn’t have to wait the statutory time limit to get information. They can get it without mailing or written requests.”

In fact, citizens can examine and copy records at any time, from any location, whether county offices are open or not.

Enhanced access will be extended to tax and register of deeds records and geographic information system (GIS) mapping. Courts are exempt.

Gary Walter of Southwest Michigan Association of Realtors (SMAR) told committee members his organization is concerned about potential fee hikes.

Under a longstanding arrangement, SMAR pays $4,000 a year for tax records of 86,000 real estate parcels in the county — for five cents each.

Howard said state statute permits a fee of 25 cents per parcel to provide such records.

“Every election cycle we get requests to reformat voter lists, which we do on a fee basis,” Chairman R. McKinley Elliott of Buchanan said. “That’s not something FOIA contemplates. FOIA says if you want it, we’ll provide its off-the-shelf format. (With electronic records) there is a value because convenience saves time. Time is money.

“It’s a privilege because you’re going beyond the statutory mandate and making records more accessible, for which a fee will be charged. It makes good business sense to do this. We no longer operate on 3×5 index cards.”

Handling a divorce case as an attorney, Elliott went online to Kent County’s website and spent 30 minutes and “50 or 60 bucks” for records that saved his client considerably more by not charging her to travel to Grand Rapids.

“Another key component to the statute and the policy is how to allow for intergovernmental sharing of information,” Howard said.

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