A New Jersey state appellate court has upheld a public records fee of $1,900 for government records that were requested by a freelance journalist because several attorneys were needed to assist with the request.
Journalist Janon Fisher fought the fee, but the court decided that the charge was reasonable. The court said the state Attorney General’s Office had legitimate reasons for assigning five attorneys to collect and review the public records that were requested.
In a 3-0 decision, the court panel wrote that the Attorney General’s office “reasonably determined that those attorneys could identify the records responsive to the OPRA request and any privileged parts of those records more expeditiously and reliably than clerical staff.”
New Jersey state attorneys spent 52.5 hours to search and review thousands of e-mail communications and other state records to locate the requested documents. The total cost to fill the public records request was $1,877.93. The cost of the public records request was determined by multiplying the total hours by the hourly wage of the lowest-salaried deputy attorney general, which is $35.77 an hour.
The appellate court panel found that in addition to copying costs, New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act allows for a public agency to impose a “special services charge” if production of the records involves “an extraordinary expenditure of time and effort.”
New Jersey state attorneys said that Fisher’s records request took the state nearly two years to complete and included the review of more than 15,000 emails and electronic files.