Look in on the Pulaski County Quorum Court any given week and you can expect to find stupidity, particularly when matters include legal advice from County Attorney Karla Burnett. Burnett has utter disdain for the public — remember her effort to keep the public from seeing public records of the felonious former county comptroller? And don’t forget when she barred a citizens group from a meeting about how county government intended to give away the ranch to developers in the Lake Maumelle Watershed.
Now she’s thrown in with JPs Steve Goss and Alan Kerr to to make on-line access of public records nearly impossible. She tells the Democrat-Gazette that she believes their idea to charge a confiscatory fee to view records on-line is legal. 50 cents for the first page. 25 cents for each succeeding page! Absurd. The county clerk’s budget is little different now than when they weren’t putting records on-line, so it’s clear the cost of putting the millions of pages on-line doesn’t approach an infinitesimal fraction of that cost. Public offices may only recover the cost of providing copies of public documents. Copy machines clearly have cost. Scanning pages for digital preservation is not a cost of making the records available for the public. If this fee were to stand, you could just as easily impose a per-page charge to visit the clerk’s office to peruse, not copy, public files.
This proposed fee is a pretext to shut off the convenience of Internet public access. It responds to a virtually non-existent problem — the potential that identity thieves might set off on needle-in-haystack searches for the odd Social Security number that has slipped into public records despite rules against their inclusion. As we know well, there are far easier ways to get personal information by going after information caches where vital personal information is universally collected — retail clerks copying credit numbers, hospital employees rifling files, etc.
Clerk Pat O’Brien is standing up for common sense and the public in this matter. But he’ll need some support against this bunch.
PS — In the federal courts, where case files can become enormous, I’ve long chafed at the fee charged for some of the access — eight cents a page. But, even there, you get some free access to files, including a free look, if not download, of new decisions and initial filings.