DOT fees hinder access to NC public records

This is another disturbing case of limiting access to public records through fees. The Southern Environmental Law Center made a request of the N.C. Department of Transportation to see records including emails and other files connected to Gov. Pat McCrory’s 25-Year Vision Plan and his proposed bond issue of $1.2 billion for transportation. It’s a perfectly legitimate request.

But DOT is assessing a fee of $468, with $234 up front, before it will provide the documents for viewing.

While the law permits an agency to charge for copies, the notion that it can charge for merely viewing documents is troubling. But DOT says the law does allow for compensation for, one DOT official said, “the information technology part of putting the information out.”

And, that same official said, a “special service charge” can be applied if a request takes up too much staff time along with IT work.

This is shaky logic indeed, and were the request coming from a private citizen instead of an organization with some resources, a fee might be prohibitive.

That is not acceptable under the principle of the state’s open meetings and public records laws. And it’s not acceptable under any principle of a government that exists to serve the people.

Such rule-making, with these fees, also understandably raises suspicions as to whether the charges are in place with the intent of limiting access because a given agency has something it doesn’t want the public to see. That may not be the case here, but DOT is open to that kind of speculation because of its actions, as any other agency would be in a similar circumstance.

There should be no fees, period, when such a request is simply to look at records, not to copy them.