Friday, August 30, 2013 12:00 AM
Health department's copy fees questioned
Interim health director: Agency may revise policy on public records
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
Wilson County’s interim health director said he’ll consider revising policies for public records requests that may violate state law.
County Manager Ellis Williford said Thursday that he’d study the agency’s $3 processing fee for copies of health department records and the personal data it collects on people who make public records requests.
"If it’s not appropriate, we would certainly want to recommend the board revise it,” said Williford, who is leading the Wilson County Health Department while officials search for a new public health director.
The agency’s record-copying policy has "been around awhile,” Williford said, and officials didn’t know how long the rules had been in effect.
"Records exist for the management of the public services, and it should be transparent and obvious to the public what records are kept,” Williford said. "The records ought to be available to the public. Access should be as easy as possible.”
North Carolina Press Association attorneys Mike Tadych and Amanda Martin said charging a processing fee for records requests and collecting data on people who ask for copies are probably inconsistent with the N.C. Public Records Act.
"To my knowledge, there’s no authority to charge a processing fee for each public records request,” Tadych told The Wilson Times.
Tadych noted that N.C. General Statute 132-6.2(b) allows a special service charge for records requests that require "extensive” use of resources, but said such a charge "doesn’t seem to be in play” when the fee is assessed for all requests regardless of scope.
"Except as otherwise provided by law, no public agency shall charge a fee for an uncertified copy of a public record that exceeds the actual cost to the public agency of making the copy,” the statute states.
North Carolina law defines the "actual cost” as a figure "limited to direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles and does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a public record had not been made.”
The Wilson County Health Department asks those requesting copies of public records to fill out a copy request form, which includes an acknowledgment that they’ll pay a $3 processing charge plus a copying fee of 5 cents per page.
Requesters are asked to provide their name, address, telephone number and signature on the form.
Tadych said opinions differ on whether or not public agencies are allowed to ask for this data at all. He said they cannot legally require people to provide it.
"Regardless of that difference, we both agree that it would be unlawful for a public agency to withhold access to public records if these additional and unauthorized requirements are not met,” Tadych said.
County Board of Commissioners Chairman Thomas Lucas, who also serves on the Wilson County Board of Health, said he wasn’t familiar with the policy but would ask the health board to examine it.
"I will certainly have a conversation with the board,” Lucas said.
The county manager volunteered to fill in as health director after the health board fired former director Felix Meyer on May 10. A selection committee is reviewing candidates for the job after the application period expired early this month.
The Wilson County Health Department isn’t the only government agency in the area that experts say has run afoul of state public records laws.
Town commissioners in Middlesex voted in January to charge residents up to $26 per hour for public records requests that take more than a half-hour to fulfill. The hourly charge, which ranges from $21-$26, is meant to reimburse the town for the salary and benefits of the employee copying the records.
Middlesex also charges a 20-cent-per-page copy fee.
Tadych previously called that policy "more than suspect” and predicted courts would strike it down if someone sued Middlesex under the Public Records Act.
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