THE ISSUE: “Christiana Borough is requiring individuals to pay to obtain certain information from the municipality,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker reported for an article in Thursday’s edition. “The policy, formalized by resolution on March 2, says that if the borough — located in southeastern Lancaster County — needs to consult an outside expert to answer a question from the public, the requester must provide billing information in advance so that any associated cost can be passed on.”
We’re concerned that the language in Christiana’s recent resolution could essentially deny members of the public access to information to which they should be entitled without cost.
And the mere presence of the requirement that billing information be provided in advance will surely discourage some from even seeking information in the first place.
Government should work for us, not the other way around. And taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for information they subsidized with their tax dollars.
In the resolution, Christiana details its policy to appoint private consultants “to assist the Borough Staff from time to time” and “augment the Staff’s capabilities with professional expertise in specific disciplines necessary to help promote the public health, safety, and general welfare of the Borough and its residents.”
The resolution continues: “For those projects that benefit the individual property owner, it is the policy of the Borough to impose reasonable fee on the individual property owner to cover project specific costs. Furthermore, it is the Borough’s policy to require the individual property owner to fully reimburse the Borough for its Consultants’ time and materials necessary to ensure that those projects benefiting the individual property owner comply with Borough Code.”
That last part is key: “fully reimburse the Borough for its Consultants’ time and materials.”
This is not standard practice, and we are not alone in finding it problematic.
“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,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Walker reported. “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.’ ”
Melewsky further detailed how such fees could impact the public.
“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.”
We agree. Christiana’s policy creates a prohibitive financial obstacle for those it is supposed to serve.
Carol Pringle, the outgoing borough manager, told Walker that the policy was drafted to apply to people who inquire about property development issues, such as sewer or stormwater regulations. “Those inquiries, (Pringle) said, sometimes require input from professional engineers or solicitors who bill the borough for their services,” Walker wrote.
Pringle seemed to indicate that the idea is to protect borough taxpayers from big developers and those outside the borough seeking information that requires time and expertise to acquire.
“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.”
But we’ve read the policy, and it doesn’t seem to make a distinction between borough residents and nonresidents. Or between developers and individuals. Christiana residents shouldn’t have to pay consultant fees when asking their own local government for information.
If the borough council agrees on that point, then the policy should have been written that way.
“(Melewsky) said the borough’s policy is not limited to developers as it is written,” Walker reported. “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,” Melewsky further told Walker. “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.”
Indeed, such vague wording in the policy allows for uneven application at best and abuse at worst.
As an additional concern, Melewsky said the state’s Right-to-Know Law prohibits fees for requests for public documents.
Pringle said the consultant fees would not apply in regular Right-to-Know requests, Walker reported. But, again, that should have been made clearer in the language.
As Pringle summed up in talking with LNP | LancasterOnline, “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.”
The problem is that Christiana’s policy is too unclear. It should be revised. And soon.