The state Department of Transportation (DOT) is reportedly charging the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) for merely looking up public records in its files – and that’s before providing the records themselves. According to The News & Observer, the SELC has requested to look at DOT emails, but the agency is charging a $468 fee, $234 of which is required up-front just for finding the documents that the SELC has asked to inspect.
From the N&O:
DOT spokesman Mike Charbonneau said the fees are authorized in a McCrory administration public records policy adopted in October by DOT and other agencies. Sophia Spencer, DOT records manager, said a “special service charge” can be levied for broad requests that consume more than four hours of staff time or require extensive information technology work to collect the requested files from DOT’s electronic archives. She pointed to a section of the state’s public records law (G.S. 132-6.2) that allows such fees in response to requests for copies of documents. She said the same language applies when the request is for inspecting the records. “We are not charging for the inspection,” Spencer said Tuesday. “This is charging for the information-technology part of pulling the information out …. We don’t allow the public to just go through our email archiving system to search and inspect. Documentation has to be pulled out by our IT staff.”
It’s a real coincidence that at this time Civitas has been waiting for a response to a public records request we made in August-September of 2014 – that has a connection to the SELC. Our request to the State Board of Elections (SBOE) was for “all communications between the State Board of Elections members and staff and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and North Carolina Environmental Partnership (NCEP).”
Almost five months later – we’re still waiting. I did get a call on Monday of this week from Josh Lawson, the SBOE’s public information officer, letting me know that he was “finally” able to perform the search himself and it would take approximately two hours. Three days later – nothing.
Civitas has a stake in the practice of public records requests, too. We frequently ask to see records that fall under the state’s public records law, and we often times ask for them in electronic format. That’s important, because having them in a digital format is essential for analyzing the huge amounts of data today’s bureaucracies can spew forth when they wish.
The results of some of our requests have uncovered issues that we have brought to light in past articles on www.civitas.org. For example, in 2012, we uncovered serious issues with the SBOE and its relationship with Bob Hall, a lobbyist with the liberal activist group Democracy NC.
In North Carolina, transparency proponents can make allies of groups that are usually in adversarial positions. In this editorial, mainstream media outlet The Winston-Salem Journal agreed with Civitas that UNC should turn over the records we requested of UNC Professor Gene Nichol. The records included emails concerning a publicly funded closed event hosted by the UNC Poverty Center that turned out to be political in nature and appears to have been blatantly partisan.
Maybe I am naive, but I was hoping that with the change at the Governor’s Mansion in 2012, we would watch North Carolina government become more transparent. Instead, it seems the McCrory administration is creating more roadblocks. Gov. McCrory should side with the people of North Carolina and not the bureaucracy, which so often seeks to stonewall the public. If the McCrory administration became a leader in transparency, that would be another welcome contrast between it and the previous two administrations.