The Glendale City Council next week will consider charging the public for traditionally free information requested from the city clerk's office.
If the controversial proposal is approved, Glendale will join a nationwide trend among cities to charge the public directly for services rendered. Opponents say that such fees may hinder the public from participating in government.
Glendale City Clerk Merle Hagemeyer is proposing that the city charge $10 an hour for any task that requires more than 10 minutes of staff time to complete. A $5 "set-up fee" would be charged to listen to a tape recording of a public meeting.
Hagemeyer said requests for information from his office sometimes require hours or days of research. He said such requests have increased significantly within the last year, largely for information on citywide rezoning, which is now concluded. Hagemeyer said he has not kept records on the number of requests but expects them to continue at a high level.
Proposition 13 Prompted Fees
Public policy experts said the movement to charge so-called "user fees" began with the passage of California's Proposition 13 in 1978 and is now beginning to sweep across the country. "It's the coming thing," said John J. Hunnewell, executive director of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks in Pasadena.
Douglas Ayres of La Mirada, a municipal consultant who has done extensive revenue studies, said about 20% of cities in California now charge fees for clerk services.
"It was a Proposition 13 fallout that California pioneered and is now being emulated around the country," Ayres said. A state constitutional amendment resulting from a 1979 initiative also requires cities to charge for special services, he said. It is up to the cities to define what are special services and what the charge should be.
Most cities have a handful of residents, Ayres said, "who have figured out the system and expect the clerk's office to spend a lot of time helping them out with their personal little projects." He said that charging for research quickly discourages such requests.
Ayres said individuals may request, for example, that staff workers compile a list of all zone changes in a square mile during the last six years or all conditional use permits granted to certain companies. "It could take somebody two days to dig that stuff out," Ayres said, adding that the motivation behind such requests usually is "personal profit, personal vendetta or personal political ambition."
Glendale's proposal to charge for research originally was scheduled for routine adoption on the council's Aug. 5 consent calendar. But action was tabled after several officials and residents objected. A hearing is scheduled Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the City Council chambers at Glendale City Hall, 613 E. Broadway.
At the Aug. 5 meeting, Councilman John F. Day questioned whether the proposal would inhibit people from looking at public records. He also asked if the city has sufficient reason to levy charges. Two residents who objected argued that city clerks are paid by the taxpayers to supply information to the public. Harold Weber of Glendale protested that charging fees for public information would create "a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich."
However, Councilwoman Ginger Bremberg called the proposed fees "perfectly legitimate." She called it "essential in this day and age" that the city recover the cost of services performed.
Glendale has long required that public service departments such as utilities and trash pickup be self-sustaining. Hagemeyer said he is merely applying the same policy to the city clerk's office.
Hagemeyer said he first heard of cities charging clerk fees at a national conference of clerks in Boston two months ago. He said he decided to pose the idea for Glendale after learning that similar fees are levied in Downey.
"The idea is not to keep anybody from looking at public records," Hagemeyer said, "but to recover some of the costs when we are asked to do extensive research."
The City of Downey last October established a charge of $2.18 per 10 minutes of research time--the actual cost of salary and benefits paid to a clerk. The fee applies to requests for research requiring more than 10 minutes of staff time and does not apply to any requests for copies of documents. The fee has been levied only twice since, said Lee Powell, Downey's administrative services director.
Powell said a group of people in Downey had routinely hounded City Hall workers for information, such as the average salary paid to the top 15 city officials. "They were trying to get pieces of information for their own use without having to do any of the work," Powell said.
Do Own Research