They don't dispute that the records should be available to the public — for inspection — but say they are worried about what might happen when someone like Simpson gets copies, expressing concern, for example, about whether Simpson's database will be complete and accurate.

Simpson says that's his problem, not the counties', and observes that nobody is forced to pay for his service if they find it of no use. The issue is not what he is going to do with the information, he says, but why the counties won't allow people to get inexpensive copies of public documents. "For whatever reason, they like to think of these as their own property," he says.

He has the backing of Maine's open-government advocates, including Mal Leary, president of Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, who notes that the registers' request would carve out "a back door exemption" to the state's freedom of access law. Specifically, he says, it would raise costs to the public for acquiring public records. While every other state, county, and local agency must charge "reasonable" copying fees related to the actual cost of copying, this proposal would allow the registries of deeds to include other expensive factors, like data-storage costs and the price of keeping the documents secure — which the registries must pay for whether anyone wants copies or not.

Worse, Leary says, is that when a fee is set, "there is no way to appeal it. . . . There ought to be some check and balance to what's reasonable . . . so you don't end up with counties balancing their budgets" on photocopying fees.

The Lewiston Sun Journal has editorialized on the matter, asking rhetorically which agency will next be allowed to exempt itself from statewide open-records laws, if this effort succeeds.

Oddly, Lovley claims the registries' proposal will not raise fees. She even goes so far as to say that if lawmakers allow her office to factor in hundreds of thousands of dollars of capital investment — and the millions of taxpayer dollars spent in the past — the result will be the opposite: "I think at some point you'll probably see some of our copy fees will go down."

But that argument doesn't impress Simpson: "They're already making a huge profit before making copies," he says. "It's not fair and it restricts access."

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