Saturday, April 06, 2013 12:50 AM
Law would hike fees for public records
Open-government advocate Goolsby sponsors measure 'to be in on the conversation'
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
Officials could charge citizens $7.25 per hour to copy public records under a proposed law that seeks to recoup the costs of time-consuming records requests.
Senate Bill 617 would allow state and local government agencies to charge minimum wage for the time employees spend finding and copying public documents. State Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Waxhaw, introduced the bill on Thursday.
"Oftentimes, people from the public and the press will call and ask for an inordinate amount of information, and it takes a lot of research to amass that information,” Tucker said. "We’re just trying to recover some of the expense.”
The bill preserves language in the state public records law directing government to make public information available "free or at minimal cost,” Tucker noted. He predicts the fees would be charged only for voluminous records requests.
"I don’t know that a municipality or a county or even the state is going to charge every time,” Tucker said. "Sometimes, it costs more to charge and collect. I don’t think anybody should have any animosity toward getting information to folks.”
The North Carolina Press Association opposes the bill, and a freedom of information ally has signed on as a sponsor in order to have a say in its fate.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican who has introduced bills to strengthen the state’s public records laws, said he’d consider voting against SB 617 if residents and media groups contact him with concerns. Goolsby and Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Fayetteville Republican, joined Tucker as primary sponsors.
"I want to be in on the conversation, which I feel you get to be in as a sponsor,” Goolsby said. "I want to be involved and, frankly, I want to make sure this moves in the right direction.”
The right direction, Goolsby said, is an interpretation of the state’s public records laws that favors citizens and caps the costs that government agencies can charge for access to public information.
"I thought it was a good start to limit it to the minimum wage,” Goolsby said.
He added that by calculating and tracking the cost of copying public records, government agencies would have accurate figures on the amount of resources that records requests use.
"I’m tired of hearing this innocuous, ‘We have to spend all of our time doing this,’” Goolsby said. "We’re trying to quantify these alleged high costs of giving the public their own information, which I don’t believe.”
The trade group representing more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers in North Carolina says finding and copying public records should be seen as part of officials’ job, not a distraction from it.
"Our feeling is you cannot charge the public twice,” N.C. Press Association Executive Director Beth Grace said. "They already own that material. Giving it to them is part of the business.”
Grace said SB 617 "covers territory that’s already covered,” noting that the law already allows agencies to add a special service charge for records requests that require "extensive” staff time or technology resources.
"This bill sets up an adversarial relationship at a time when we really have to work together,” she said.
While the bill could increase costs in dozens of cities and towns that don’t charge public records requesters for staff time, it would slash the top hourly rate that one local town charges by 350 percent.
The town of Middlesex recently began charging residents up to $26 per hour for records that take more than 30 minutes to compile and copy in order to reimburse the town for workers’ salary and benefits. North Carolina Press Association attorneys say the policy probably violates the state public records law.
As currently written, North Carolina law states that government agencies can charge only the "actual cost” of copying public records, which "does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a record had not been made.”
Tucker’s bill would override town policy and cap the fees Middlesex can charge at $7.25 per hour. Middlesex Mayor LuHarvey Lewis said he hadn’t reviewed the bill and couldn’t comment on it.
Senate leaders referred SB 617 to the Judiciary I committee, which Goolsby co-chairs with Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican.
Goolsby’s other bills, which would amend the state constitution to provide for public access to government meetings and records and set criminal penalties for willful violations of the public records and open meetings laws, also have been sent to that committee.
"We’re trying to make sure we get all of these bills together,” Goolsby said. "I’m going to participate in this.”
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