Public officials with secrets to keep or with a simple dislike of dealing with the media love to whine about requests for public records. Too much trouble, they say. Takes up time from serving the people. Costly, and we can’t charge enough for it. Nothing to hide, anyway. Quit bothering us.
Of late, one of the favorite strategies for dealing with records requests is to simply delay in responding to them. The public official or agency under such a request figures if it holds off long enough, making excuses about the time it takes or saying it has to go through emails, for example, to ensure proper privacy, the request will go away or be outrun by other concerns.
That’s insulting to the public. And make no mistake: When media make such a request, it’s not just about getting a story. It’s about the people’s right to know and need to know.
One of the more outrageous examples of late, in a Republican administration clearly unfriendly to public records requests, has to do with the July 2013 resignation of Kieran Shanahan, secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety. He left suddenly after six months on the job.
Answers as to why were hard to come by. The administration said it was about spending time with his wife and concentrating on his law practice.
A slap in the public’s face
The Associated Press filed a public records request in September 2013 for emails sent or received by Shanahan. The request has not been fulfilled. It has been 19 months.
Why has it taken so long? It’s a good question without a good answer. The department cops to not having enough staff and dealing with emergencies and more important things.
The general answer that there’s just not time to do the job is basically a slap in the face to the public. It means: “We don’t think we have time, and we really don’t want to do it, so too bad. Go away.”
That kind of attitude doesn’t help the department or the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who as a candidate for governor talked again and again about transparency. Once in office, though, McCrory appears to care less. And his administration has interpreted, conveniently, the state’s public records law as allowing a special service charge for records requests it deems difficult to produce.
A shift toward secrecy
Attorney General Roy Cooper is among those who see a serious problem. At a meeting called by the N.C. Open Government Coalition dubbed Sunshine Day, part of this week, Sunshine Week, spotlighting the need for open government, Cooper said charging fees for records was a “shift toward” secrecy.
He’s right. Consider that the Department of Public Safety charged the Associated Press $74 to retrieve the Shanahan emails. But the department said staff members would have to review each email to make sure it didn’t contain confidential information. On requests taking more than four hours to process, the hourly wages and benefits of employees working on the request must be paid. Or so says the agency.
This kind of delay is utterly outrageous and makes a joke of McCrory’s promises of transparency, not to mention raising questions about why the administration is throwing up so many barriers in this and other requests.
Public records laws must be followed, and the McCrory administration’s contempt for them is disturbing, coming from a governor who skewered the Democrats who preceded him in office for what he considered secrecy.
Fees and delays are insulting to the public. And, yes, they’re insulting as well to the spirit of an open democracy.