The Kenosha County Board has unanimously passed a new ordinance focused on improving transparency within local government.
Behind a yearlong initiative from Board Supervisor Zach Rodriguez, the county recently adopted an ordinance that will lessen the cost of obtaining Kenosha County public records in response to the Wisconsin Department of Justice Office of Open Government’s suggested fee structure.
The ordinance, which went into effect Aug. 6, requires county officials to review its fees every three years in order to ensure they reflect the “actual, necessary and direct costs” as provided by law.
The cost for obtaining all mediums — including paper copies and digital files — was reduced by about 60 percent, according to Rodriguez.
The cost for a black-and-white copy dropped from 25 cents to 10 cents.
“This was no easy task,” Rodriguez said. “We did it two days shy of a year since Wisconsin Department of Justice issued an advisory to municipalities to re-evaluate their fees.
“We should definitely be proud of it. It was what my district elected me to do: To have a more open, transparent government that works for the people and not against them.”
Local fees range widely based on the municipality or agency.
Kenosha Joint Services reduced its cost for prints or photocopies of public records to 3 cents per page. The cost for single black-and-white copies in the city of Kenosha, village of Pleasant Prairie and village and town of Somers is 25 cents per page.
The Pleasant Prairie Police Department charges $1 for the first page and 25 cents for each additional page.
Somers resident Kevin Mathewson, owner of KM Investigations LLC, makes frequent public records requests through numerous local agencies.
“I’ve been pushing local government agencies for many years now to modify the exorbitant fees they charge,” Mathewson said. “Fortunately, I’ve been successful in getting many agencies to examine, and later re-structure their fees, like Joint Services, which is the largest record-keeper in the county.”
According to Wisconsin State Statute 19.35, “An authority may impose a fee upon the requester of a copy of a record which may not exceed the actual, necessary and direct cost of reproduction and transcription of the record, unless a fee is otherwise specifically established or authorized to be established by law.”
Authorities may charge a fee for four specific tasks:
Reproduction and transcription.
Photographing and photographic processing.
Locating and mailing.
Additionally, an authority may not charge for the time it takes to redact records, and an authority may not make a profit on its response to a public records request.
Last August, the Wisconsin Department of Justice alerted state authorities involving “a noticeable and concerning increase of inquiries pertaining to high fees being charged for records.”
The department’s recommended cost for copying a paper record or printing an electronic record is 1.35 cents per black-and-white page and 6.32 cents per color page.
County Board Supervisor Ron Frederick was one of the few officials opposed to changing the county fee structure, according to Rodriguez.
“Ron believed nobody was going to sue us for this,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s a poor way of thinking, just because we haven’t been called out for something.
“Once the board identifies an issue, it’s our job to get ahead of it. That’s what I was trying to hit on. All a citizen had to do was walk into (the county building), request a copy and walk right across the street to the courthouse and file a lawsuit.”