Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Kenton rapped over records law

Curious citizen was told to wait

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Public agencies must maintain access to their records, even when designated custodians are unavailable, the attorney general's office has ordered.

        The opinion, which carries the force of law, chided Kenton County officials for delaying release of public records a week or more beyond the statutory limit of three days. The county argued that it complied with the Open Records Law by informing the person asking for the records that they would not be available until the custodian returned from vacation.

        The Aug. 22 ruling stemmed from a request made last month by Fort Mitchell Democrat Nathan Smith, a party strategist.

        At issue was the $1.5 million deal the Kenton Fiscal Court closed Feb. 6 on the Preston building, a Covington office building at 501 Main St. The court said it needed the office space, but instead of leasing, the county bought the building.

        On July 11, Mr. Smith sought copies of an appraisal of the property at 501 Main St. in Covington, the closing and disbursement statements for the property, and all invoices for legal services provided by the law firm of Frost, Brown, Todd LLCC from April 30, 2001, through the date a response was made to his request.

        Brandon Voelker, the Kenton Fiscal Court's records custodian, immediately notified Mr. Smith by telephone that he would be on vacation from July 12-20. In a follow-up letter dated July 12, Mr. Voelker told Mr. Smith that he would return to his office on July 23, and that “upon (his) return (he would) comply with (Mr. Smith's) request,” the attorney general's opinion said.

        After failing to reach Mr. Voelker by phone on July 24 and 25, Mr. Smith initiated his appeal.

        On July 31, Mr. Voelker notified the attorney general's office that the fiscal court had furnished Mr. Smith with copies of the records identified in his request. However, he did not state when the records were released, according to the attorney general's opinion.

        “It is incumbent on the Kenton County fiscal court, as it is on any public agency, to make proper provision for the uninterrupted processing of open records requests,” said assistant attorney general Amye Bensenhaver.

        It was not enough to tell the person seeking the records they would be available in the future. “Until such time as the legislature acts to afford relief to agencies from the requirement of disclosure of public records within three days of receipt of the request, we are bound to strictly construe this, along with the other requirements found in the Open Records Law,” Ms. Bensenhaver said.

        In a related opinion, the of fice reiterated its longstanding policy that 10 cents is the only reasonable charge agencies can make for providing copies of records.

        The records law allows public agencies to charge for copies to recover their costs, not including the personnel time and effort involved.

        Stanford City Clerk Sandy Gooch billed 20 cents per page for copies sought by one attorney, who objected.

        Ms. Gooch offered evidence about the paper, toner and copier lease and maintenance charges, which she said were much more than 10 cents per page. But the attorney general said the costs cited amounted to only 4 cents.

        Nevertheless, a 10-cent charge is an appropriate compromise between a public agency trying to recover its costs and keeping prices reasonable for individuals seeking public records, the opinion said.
       Enquirer reporter Cindy Schroeder contributed to this report.


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