The McCrory administrations decision to increase the cost for obtaining records that belong to the public will affect far more than the medias access to this information. This restrictive policy on providing access to public records is troubling on several levels.
If unchallenged, it will result in hundreds of dollars in costs for access to information that belongs to each and every resident of this state and discourage requests for those records. Among other things, researching environmental problems will be more costly, perhaps prohibitively so, for organizations that work to protect public health and the environment, as well as the communities who are threatened by the siting of or live with polluting facilities.
One of the excuses given by the administration was that large requests were very time consuming and took staff away from other duties. The need for large requests is exacerbated by having to play the find-a-record game with state agencies. Public information officers at these agencies are supposed to facilitate the flow of information, access to which is in the public interest and required by law.
Although generally helpful, public information officers do not provide a road map for advocacy groups or individuals trying to piece together the facts on a particular issue. Obtaining access to the necessary documents can be frustrating and time consuming for the reviewer, and it is not for the fainthearted. Navigating the maze of inconsistent agency filing systems, deciding what records are pertinent, identifying record holders and determining the location of the necessary files are largely left up to the requester, which contributes to the scope of the request.
A typical file appointment at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources involves making an appointment at some central file room, either at the Raleigh Central Office or in one of the regions. There, you will be provided with some, but not nearly all, of the information related to a facility.
In order to assess a permitting decision or enforcement action, you must review individual staff files what is available in one of the central file rooms and possibly emails and memos relating to these activities. Too many times trips are made to state agencies only to discover upon review of the materials that you were not given all that you asked for, that documents referenced in the materials provided are not present or that entire files are missing.
On July 27, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League made a substantial records request for documents in reference to any potential involvement members of North Carolinas Mining and Energy Commission might have had with the end-run around the fracking chemical disclosure rule that had been passed out of two MEC committees then stopped dead in its tracks. It took DENR almost three weeks to comply with that request; we were patient knowing that staff had other tasks.
According to the DENR website, the new policy advising members of the public that they would be charged by the hour for records to be compiled was posted July 28. The timing was probably an interesting coincidence; however, review of those records revealed that a member of the Mining and Energy Commission had indeed met with international gas and oil giant Halliburtons representative after his appointment to the commission.
Access to our records is vital and should be held dear by every North Carolinian. Any attempt to inhibit the flow of information by making the cost of obtaining it prohibitive flies in the face of transparency and is a sign of a bureaucracy run amok.
Therese Vick of Raleigh works for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.