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Some circuit clerks are charging a fee to inspect public records online, and some people are upset about it, believing it contradicts the spirit of the state Freedom of Information law. Clerks who're charging say that without the fee, there'd be no records online for the public to inspect.
No clerk charges a fee to look at public records in the clerk's own office. The FOI forbids that. (Although the law does permit a small fee for copies, to cover the cost.) Some clerks don't charge for online inspection, either. The circuit clerk in Pulaski County, the largest county in the state, doesn't. The circuit clerk in Stone County doesn't charge for online inspection, but that's because Stone County, one of the smaller counties, doesn't have records online. To look at records in Stone County, a person has to go to the courthouse in Mountain View.
Van Buren County is small also, and it has online records. Unlimited access to the records costs $135 a month. Alternatively, one can pay $4 per viewed image.
Van Buren Circuit/County Clerk Ester Bass of Clinton said that when he took office in 2001, only five years' worth of county records were digitized. "We had a small room with one viewer," he said. "People were lined up to use it. Some of them were mad." To digitize the rest of the records cost $110,000, a sum difficult for Van Buren County government to come up with. So fees are charged. "It'll take a long time to pay back what we spent," Bass said. "We don't have that many subscribers right now. It's mostly people doing title work for oil and gas leases. We're right in the heart of the Fayetteville Shale."
Bette Stamps of Fayetteville, Washington County circuit clerk, said the office began digitizing records around 2002, and, "We have always charged an Internet fee." There's a cost to maintaining the system, she said.
"The FOI says we have to provide public access for free, and we do that," Stamps said. "If people want to come into our office, they can use our computers for free. We have a monthly fee of $50 for people who want to sit in their offices and look at the records."
Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said he hadn't heard about counties charging Internet fees for public records, but he knew that discussions were ongoing about how Internet records should be handled. "FOI doesn't specifically address the question of online records because the Internet didn't exist when the law was passed."
Larimer said he'd be surprised if the Arkansas Supreme Court allowed charges just to look at records online. "That would be discouraging access rather than encouraging it, which is the idea of FOI."
Donna Wilson, circuit clerk in Stone County, is president of the circuit clerks association. She said the association hadn't addressed the question of how online records should be handled.
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