Records charges unwarranted
The words in the second paragraph of North Carolina’s public records law -- General Statute 132 -- seem clear:
“The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law.”
But the McCrory administration has adopted an unusual view of “minimal cost.”
“Those seeking access to public records are often met with long delays and unprecedented demands for payment,” the Associated Press’s Michael Biesecker reported last week. .
“McCrory's staff has interpreted a one-sentence clause in North Carolina's public records law as providing broad authority to assess a ‘special service charge’ on any records request taking more than 30 minutes for an employee to process,” Biesecker wrote. “Invoices totaling hundreds of dollars have also been assessed for requests for digital copies of emails that have routinely been produced by past administrations without charge.”
While the charges -- never before levied by the executive branch -- have been levied mostly against media outlets, they would appear to apply to anyone seeking the records.
The administration’s rationale is questionable, to be charitable.
“I can tell you that with extensive staff time, we are going to charge,” Kim Genardo, Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications director, told Biesecker. “Because everyone here has a job to do and a job function.”
Aldona Wos, secretary of health human services, adopted a similar refrain in testifying at a legislative oversight hearing in October. “It is very time-consuming for us and pulling us away from the work we should be doing, whether it’s Medicaid reform, whether it’s now the federal shutdown, whether it’s sequestration,” Wos said.
Yes, those are all important tasks.
But so is providing the public with the information to which it is entitled to about those tasks, and how the government is performing them. Previous administrations – Democrat and Republican – have managed to find the time to perform those tasks without assessing exorbitant charges.
The administration also has billed records requesters hundreds of dollars for producing copies of emails, for which officials have said specialized assistance from information technology staff is necessary.
The state spent $1 million several years ago, however, in response to a court order to retain email messages, to automatically store them in a searchable database. The system was designed to allow state employees to search for and retrieve emails without IT assistance.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion the charges are meant to discourage access to public records, or are punitive toward media whose coverage the rather thin-skinned governor has vocally and repeatedly criticized.
“The special service charge … is inconsistent with the notion that these records belong to the people," media lawyer Mike Tadych said.
That they do, and the administration would do well to forego erecting obstacles to accessing them.