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Officials settle lawsuit over $3 fee for copies

People who recently paid $3 for a Largo fire or police report can get a big chunk of their money back if they saved their receipts.

Commissioners agreed Tuesday night to settle a class action lawsuit brought by a Clearwater man who felt the $3 fee was excessive.

To settle the suit, commissioners agreed to stop charging for copies of fire and police reports, and to refund $2.40 to every person who was overbilled during the past four years. Those who try to collect must have a receipt.

Commissioners also agreed to pay Louis Thalhofer, the man who filed the lawsuit, $9,950 to cover his legal costs.

City Attorney Gerald McClelland recommended settling the suit. "We have a reasonable chance to settle this and delete the fee altogether," he said. "If we can't charge more than a dollar, then it really isn't worth the city's while" to charge anything at all.

Thalhofer's attorney, Robert Walker, was equally pleased to settle. "I'm always happy to win, especially when the public also is a winner," Walker said. Thalhofer could not be reached.

In 1982, the city began charging $3 to copy up to four pages of police and fire reports. Last summer, when Thalhofer requested an accident report and was told the charge would be $3, he sought legal advice, because he thought he was being charged too much, Walker said. State law specifies that copies should be 15 cents per page so as to not unduly restrict the public from access to records.

According to McClelland, the city has been getting about $600 each year for copies of fire reports and about $10,000 for police reports.

In a memo to commissioners advising them to settle the case, McClelland said the "revenue derived annually from the $3 fee is inadequate to justify the high cost of extended litigation."

Although the fee has been in place since 1982, statutes of limitation have run out for those who paid before 1993, according to McClelland.

Walker filed a similar case for another client against the Palm Harbor fire district. He said Wednesday that case was on hold pending the outcome of the Largo case. "Now we plan to proceed with that one," he said.