Too many in the dark on sunshine laws

By Corey Friedman

Leaders don’t always need legislative victories to sweep aside inconvenient laws. Sometimes, a misinformed majority is all it takes.GovPatMcCrory-HQ

From the governor’s mansion to a town hall in our own backyard, elected executives have decided they can disregard the parts of North Carolina’s public records laws they find disagreeable. Perhaps they act with impunity because they know most state residents are in the dark.

Almost two-thirds of Tar Heels are unaware of state “sunshine laws” that open government records and require elected boards to conduct business in public, according to an Elon University poll released last week. Is it any wonder, then, that open-government offenders offer little more than an unapologetic shrug when confronted?

Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has begun charging the full cost of state workers’ salary and benefits for public records requests that take more than a half-hour to fulfill. This mirrors a policy Middlesex town commissioners enacted early this year.

Residents who want to review McCrory’s email correspondence can be charged more than $54 per hour to reimburse the governor for the salary and benefits of the employees copying the records. Middlesex says it can charge $26 per hour if the town clerk runs the copy machine and $21 an hour if the administrative assistant presses the button.

Both McCrory and Middlesex Mayor LuHarvey Lewis point to a provision in the N.C. Public Records Act that allows government agencies to asses a “special service charge” for records requests that require “extensive” staff time or information technology services.

The law doesn’t define what qualifies as extensive, and we doubt sincerely that 30 minutes, or 1.25 percent of a full-time employee’s 40-hour workweek, fits the bill. What’s more, McCrory and Lewis are eager to exploit a narrow loophole that another passage in the very same law sews shut.

State statute prohibits agencies from charging any fee that exceeds “the actual cost to the public agency of making the copy.” It further explains that actual cost “does not include costs that would not have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a record had not been made.”

If a full-time employee copies public records during his or her workday, then salary and benefits cannot be considered part of the “actual cost.” Why? Because that worker would earn the same wage absent fulfilling the public records request.

Even among those unaware of their rights under North Carolina law, most people agree that state and local governments shouldn’t be making an obscene profit on public records requests. The Elon poll found that 51 percent of state residents believe such records should cost nothing to obtain.

About a third of respondents said governments should be able to charge for public records. The average rate they suggested was $14.04, nearly half of what Middlesex has authorized and a quarter of what McCrory’s office charges.

The outrageous fees that local and state leaders charge for copying documents that already belong to the people may yet be mercifully short-lived. State Sen. Angela Bryant told The Wilson Times last week that she will request a legal opinion from Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office on the Middlesex fees.

Since McCrory has employed the same dubious reasoning as Middlesex in defending the hourly fees, any conclusions the attorney general draws are likely to ripple far beyond the 822-population southern Nash County town, extending to the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.

In the meantime, residents would do well to exert pressure on both our first-term governor and the Middlesex Board of Commissioners to abandon their policies of overcharging those who seek public records.

We’d also encourage a careful reading of North Carolina’s open records and public meetings laws. A knowledgeable and educated population is the best defense against leaders who would use widespread ignorance of the law as license to break it.

[Note: This editorial was originally published in The Wilson Times.]

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One Response to Too many in the dark on sunshine laws

  1. yeah, that is excessive.. I feel that if any charge be made, it should be like the library or staples.. $0.10 per b&w page, or $0.25 per color page to account for printer use (ink and paper), and perhaps have a discount if you bring your own copy paper..

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