Christiana Borough is requiring individuals to pay to obtain certain information from the municipality, located in southeastern Lancaster County.
The policy, formalized by resolution on March 2, says that if the borough needs to consult an outside expert to answer a question from the public, the requestor must provide billing information in advance so that any associated cost can be passed on.
Open government advocates say the practice is concerning, as it could amount to billing taxpayers for information their elected representatives already paid for.
But Carol Pringle, the outgoing borough manager, said the policy was drafted to apply to people who inquire about property development issues, such as sewer or storm water regulations. Those inquires, she said, sometimes require input from professional engineers or solicitors who bill the borough for their services.
“It’s not really fair to my residents that someone who is looking for information on a property should pass off the fee to my residents for that information,” Pringle said. “If the borough incurs a fee, we can pass that on to the person requesting that.”
Pringle said the policy was modeled after a similar one in Chester County, although LNP|LancasterOnline was not immediately able to locate such a policy in any of that county's municipalities.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said she was unaware of any other municipality in the state enacting a similar policy. She said Christiana's move is concerning because the solicitor and engineer are already paid with tax dollars, and any fees charged to answer inquiries about borough laws could amount to a “double tax.”
“Moreover, the threat of having to pay a professional’s fee, which are typically substantial, will limit or outright prohibit the public from seeking access to information about their government,” she said. “The borough should address cost concerns through the contractual agreements it uses to pay for professional services, not by passing along potentially exorbitant fees to citizens seeking access to public information.”
Melewsky also noted that the state’s Right-to-Know Law prohibits fees like this for requests for public documents. And she said the borough's policy is not limited to developers as it is written; it covers any property issue involving a permit, not only complex ordinance compliance issues.
“It’s also noteworthy that the policy allows the borough to seek outside consultant fees when it is 'required or desired' by the borough," she said. “The policy can be used anytime the borough wants, not just those occasions when outside advice is actually necessary. That kind of discretion is easily abused and could result in routine issues being routed to outside consultants at high fees rather than having publicly funded staff address them.”
Karen Watkins, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of Lancaster County, relayed comments from her members that it wasn’t uncommon for developers to pay these fees to talk with municipalities. A representative from one of the association's member organizations told Watkins that because regulations have become complex, municipalities often do not let their managers answer questions and instead refer them to professionals. However, she said other members told her they had never encountered such a fee for consulting with municipal employees on ordinances.
Fair to taxpayers
Pringle said the borough's policy is not being applied to regular Right-to-Know requests.
Defending the policy with a real-world example, Pringle said a property developer from New Jersey recently called requesting information on the storm water requirement of a particular property. She first suggested caller reference the borough’s ordinance online, but “he wanted someone to verbally explain it to him.” The requester then was asked to provide his billing information.
“We are running into this with the development of vacant properties in the area," she said. "I just don’t want my residents paying fees for potential buyers of properties and then (the buyers) not follow through on it and then we get stuck with the cost.”
Pringle also said the policy probably wouldn't apply to people living in the borough.
“if it’s our residents and they are looking for a project, they would just be paying the permitting fee. I don’t think we could charge them for that information,” she said.