Cooper: McCrory policy on charging extra for public records violates spirit of law

cjarvis@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2014 

— Tensions between Gov. Pat McCrory and the Democratic attorney general who appears to be running against him escalated Friday with a pointed exchange of letters over government transparency.

It began with correspondence from Attorney General Roy Cooper, who wrote that the McCrory administration’s policy of allowing cabinet agencies to charge extra for copies of public records – making it harder to get information about state government – violates at least the spirit of state law.

It might also run contrary to the intent of the state Public Records Act, Cooper wrote to the governor on Jan. 28 in a letter made public Friday.

“The people are poorly served by barriers to obtain information they already own,” Cooper said.

The attorney general called on the McCrory administration to reconsider the “special service charge” that some agencies impose on requests that take more than 30 minutes to find, review and copy records. Those requests are deemed “extensive” and are billed by adding the cost of copying the records in addition to a rate based on the salary and benefits of the employees involved. At least one agency charges $51.47 an hour.

Bob Stephens, the governor’s general counsel, replied to Cooper in a letter Friday.

“First, and to be clear, this administration is committed to transparency, open government, and broad access to public records,” Stephens wrote.

He added that state agencies and the governor’s office routinely fill records requests and in a timely manner. He disagreed that the policy violates the spirit or intent of the law.

Stephens said it’s only fair that taxpayers not absorb the costs of extensive records requests. He says Florida, for example, imposes a special service charge for requests taking more than 15 minutes. News outlets typically file the bulk of public record requests, but anyone can.

Cooper, who is expected to challenge the governor in 2016, said as a state senator he sponsored many bills that created the current public records and open meetings laws. He said the public records law was written to specify only the “actual cost” of copying could be charged.

The attorney general said he is concerned that the special service charge will lead to litigation. He also sent the letter to General Assembly leaders so that they could consider legislation to clarify what is meant by “excessive” requests if the governor’s administration refuses to change its policy.

Cooper said a number of local governments have followed the administration’s example in imposing the extra costs, and that his office will be getting in touch with them as it becomes aware of them.

‘More than my mortgage payment’

Stephens called that “unsolicited public policy advice” and said such communication with municipalities was improper. He noted that Charlotte, Asheville and other cities have instituted charges because of increasingly extensive requests, he said.

“You seem particularly unconcerned with the challenges facing local governments in responding to these requests,” Stephens wrote.

In January 2013, commissioners in the Nash County town of Middlesex adopted a new policy charging extra for any records request that took more than 30 minutes. Last month, a local woman paid $415 for copies of a year’s worth of the mayor’s emails, which included 20 cents per page copied and six hours at $34 an hour (the mayor’s salary and benefits) to cover his time.

“It’s more than my mortgage payment,” Becky Strickland told The Wilson Daily Times.

Cooper’s office was monitoring the dispute in Middlesex, but the attorney general’s letter wasn’t a formal opinion or advisory in response to that situation.

In recent weeks, UNC-Chapel Hill has been citing a policy that requires charges for more elaborate requests. Stephens’ letter says the UNC system has long had a policy in place allowing for special charges for cumbersome requests.

Last fall, Mike Tadych and other media attorneys met with Stephens, Budget Director Art Pope and Communications Director Kim Genardo. Tadych said they didn’t make any progress.

“Our position and that of the attorney general are consistent,” Tadych said Friday. “The requestor community is very concerned about this switch in public policy.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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