Governmental bodies in Texas are required to produce public information upon request—but they don’t have to do it for free. Charges for the production of public information must be calculated according to rules established by the attorney general. If you think you’re being overcharged, you can file a complaint with the attorney general’s office.
Under Texas’ open records law, known as the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), “each person is entitled . . . to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.001. Governmental bodies in Texas are obligated to “promptly produce public information” upon request. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.221.
That’s all well and good, but in reality, cost is often a barrier to obtaining records under the TPIA.
TPIA allows governmental bodies to charge a requestor for public information. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.261. But governmental bodies aren’t required to charge for providing public information, and many don’t. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.267.
We recently received public information at no cost from the Comptroller, TxDOT, Public Utility Commission, City of Plano, City of Denton, and Austin ISD, to name just a few.
On the flip side, we recently received exorbitant cost estimates from other governmental bodies. In response to a request for bids and scoring documents for two solicitations, TCEQ demanded $382.20 for labor and overhead. The records had already been compiled and redacted for production, but TCEQ refused to provide them without payment. Northside ISD, in response to a request for one-years’ worth of legal invoices on a specified matter, demanded payment of $162.00.
Is there any limit on how much I can be charged for public information?
All charges must be calculated in accordance with the attorney general’s cost rules. For example:
- Paper copies. The charge for standard paper copies is $.10 per page.
- CD. The charge for copies produced by CD is $1.00 per CD.
- Labor charges. The hourly charge for a programmer is $28.50/hour. Other labor is charged at $15/hour.
- Overhead. When there are labor charges, a governmental body can include an overhead charge, which is computed at 20% of the labor charges. For example, if a request requires one hour of labor for locating the information, the overhead would be: $15.00 x .20 = $3.00.
- Body worn camera footage. The charge for a copy of a body worn camera recording can be no more than $10 per recording and $1.00 per full minute of footage, if the recording has not already been released in response to a public information request.
A governmental body that is not a state agency (e.g. a municipality or police department) may exceed the costs established by the attorney general’s rules by up to 25 percent. 1 Tex. Admin. Code § 70.1.
A governmental body cannot charge the requestor for time spent on:
- Determining the meaning and/or scope of the request;
- Requesting a clarification from the requestor;
- Comparing records gathered from different sources;
- Determining which exceptions to disclosure may apply to information that is responsive to the request;
- Preparing the information and/or correspondence required under the TPIA;
- Reordering, reorganizing, or in any other way bringing information into compliance with well established and generally accepted information management practices; or
- Providing instruction to, or learning by, employees or agents of the governmental body of new practices, rules, and/or procedures, including the management of electronic records.
If a governmental body estimates that charges will exceed $40, it must provide the person requesting information with a detailed statement itemizing all the estimated anticipated costs of complying with the request. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.2615. If the requestor does not respond to the estimate within 10 business days by accepting the estimate, modifying their request, or filing a complaint with the attorney general alleging that the governmental body is overcharging, the request is considered withdrawn.
You can save some money by inspecting documents in person at the governmental body’s offices. With limited exceptions, the governmental body can’t charge for copying costs or overhead when records are inspected in person. Tex. Gov’t Code §§ 552.271; 552.272.
Questions concerning the allowable charges for providing public information under the TPIA can be directed to the Cost Hotline of the Office of the Attorney General, toll free at (888) 672-6787.
Can a governmental body charge a flat fee for public information requests?
Generally, no. Charges should be calculated on a request-by-request basis, accounting for the labor hours and copy costs necessary to fulfill the request.
The Brownsville Police Department recently issued a refund to reporter Dave Hendricks after he complained to the attorney general that the department was charging a $15 flat fee for public information requests. After the attorney general contacted the department with questions, the department issued a refund to Mr. Hendricks, saying there was “an oversight in billing.”
In some limited cases, however, there may be a flat fee for the information under a statute other than the TPIA. For example, section 550.065 of the Transportation Code establishes a charge of $6.00 for an accident report maintained by a governmental entity. Tex. Transp. Code § 550.065.
Can I dispute the charges?
A requestor who believes they have been overcharged can lodge a complaint with the attorney general. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.269(a). The complaint must be filed within 10 business days after the requestor receives the cost estimate from the governmental body—complaints received after that deadline will not be considered.
The attorney general will review the complaint and, generally, will contact the governmental body to ask questions about how the charges were calculated.
Then, the attorney general may uphold the charges as presented to the requestor, require the issuance of an amended statement of estimated charges, or, if the requestor has already paid the charges, require the issuance of a refund for the difference between what was paid and the charges that are determined to be appropriate. 1 Tex. Admin. Code § 70.8. A governmental body may be required to pay three times the amount of the overcharge if (i) the governmental body refused or failed to follow the attorney general cost rules and (ii) the governmental body did not calculate the charges in good faith. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.269(b); 1 Tex. Admin. Code § 70.8.
For instructions on how to file a cost complaint, visit the attorney general’s website.