The PIP Printing Center on the bottom floor of the L&C Tower charges about 10 centssometimes lessfor copies. But a citizen going just upstairs to the state Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) to copy public documents has to fork out 50 cents a page. For the mathematically impaired, that’s $12 for a 24-page document.
While the state has had a long-standing practice of gouging citizens who want copies of public recordsas does the city, whose Water & Sewer Department charges as much as $1 a page for some documentslocal citizens are pointing to federal regulations that directly challenge such obscene pricing. And they may just sue to win enforcement of the federal guidelines.
“We’re making plans to take this to the next step legally,” says Barry Sulkin, a local environmental consultant who, in his capacity as director of Tennessee’s branch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), is pursuing a change in the price-gouging practice.
He points to the Code of Federal Regulations, which sets out minimum requirements for state and local agencies carrying out the Clean Water Act and some other specific federal laws. The rules say “whenever possible, agencies shall provide copies of documents of interest to the public free of charge.” If the agencies must charge for copies, the rules say “charges for copies should not exceed prevailing commercial copying costs.”
So far, Sulkin’s appeals to the state to rectify the problem have been dismissed. In a recent letter responding to Sulkin, the general counsel for the state DEC, E. Joseph Sanders, defended the state’s pricing practices and pointed out that copies are provided free to “individuals who are certified as eligible for public welfare, supplemental security income, or any other of the various social or medical indigency programs.” Sanders’ letter also argued that the prevailing commercial rate is not the 7 cents a copy Sulkin had claimed. “Copying charges may range from your 7 cents to 25 cents for simply copying a document depending on the business offering the service,” he wrote.
But, Sulkin says, the 50 cents the state charges is 100 percent more than the high commercial copying price of 25 cents Sanders references. And environmentalists familiar with the practices of other states say Tennessee is among the worst offenders.
“I’ve done work in eight or 10 states, and I’ve never seen anything as expensive as Tennessee,” says Rick Parrish, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va. “Tennessee is out of line.”
Lest the state believe this is just a one-man pursuit of justice, at least 18 other environmental and consumer protection organizationsincluding Parrish’shave signed on to Sulkin’s cause. “Everywhere I go,” Sulkin says, “environmental groups and citizens are saying this is outrageous.”
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Location doesn't matter.
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