Thursday, March 07, 2013 9:52 PM
Residents fight town records fees
Middlesex charges up to $26 per hour for research, copies
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
MIDDLESEX — Two outspoken residents say they’re the reason town officials now charge up to $26 per hour for copies of public records.
Brandie Holt and Robert Johnson said their requests for information on park maintenance led Middlesex commissioners to begin charging a service fee for records requests that take more than a half-hour to fulfill. An attorney says the town policy may violate state public records laws.
"I don’t feel like I should have to spend my hard-earned dollars because I’ve already spent my tax dollars for the county and the town,” Holt said. "It’s just a point of principle now.”
Commissioners decided on Jan. 14 to begin charging residents a fee to reimburse the town for employee salaries and benefits if public records requests require more than 30 minutes. The town charges $26 per hour if the town clerk makes the copies and $21 per hour if the administrative assistant fulfills the request.
Middlesex tried to charge a service fee for staff time when Holt asked for ledgers and vendor receipts for park expenses last September. Town Clerk Jennifer Lambert estimated that the request would take two hours of research time and quoted Holt a fee of $36.80, according to emails Holt provided to The Wilson Times.
Holt said she’d pay the 20-cent per-page copy fee, but she disputed the charge for staff time.
"I just don’t understand what they’re doing with their time that they’re so disorganized that it would take that much time to get those records,” she said.
Lambert noted in an email reply that state law allows government agencies to assess a service fee for "extensive” requests.
Mayor Luther "Lu Harvey” Lewis said Middlesex eventually agreed to charge Holt only copying fees. He provided a receipt showing that Holt’s husband picked up the records on Oct. 5 and paid $4 for 20 copies.
"We’re just trying to be as fair as we can with everyone in town,” said Lewis, who also works as the town administrator. "We never thought that a 30-minute time limit was going to cause anybody a lot of grief, but apparently, it has.”
CONFLICT WITH STATE LAW?
N.C. General Statute 132-6.2 establishes the fees government agencies may charge for providing copies of public records.
Agencies can’t charge fees that exceed the "actual cost” of furnishing the records, which the law defines as "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 record had not been made.”
North Carolina Press Association attorney Mike Tadych said Middlesex is likely violating the law by charging residents for salaries and benefits it would have to pay whether or not a public records request had been made.
State statute allows government to assess a "special service charge” for records requests that require "extensive” staff time or information technology resources.
The service charge "shall be reasonable and shall be based on the actual cost incurred for such extensive use of information technology resources or the labor costs of the personnel providing the services,” according to the law.
Tadych doesn’t believe a request that takes 30 minutes to fulfill qualifies as extensive. Town officials say that since state law doesn’t define that standard, local governments are free to decide for themselves.
"There’s no definition of extensive,” Lewis said. "Extensive can be debated in every town. I think the whole problem here is because we put a timeframe on what we said is extensive.”
Middlesex could request an opinion from the state attorney general’s office on when it would be appropriate to charge service fees for extensive staff time or information technology resources. The attorney general provides written opinions to government agencies and officials upon request.
"I hadn’t really thought about it,” Lewis said about asking state officials for clarification. "I didn’t see it being a problem.”
MIDDLESEX STANDS ALONE
Lewis said small towns with a handful of employees don’t have the resources to fulfill voluminous records requests.
"We’re not any different from anybody else,” he said.
Middlesex is unique in the fees it charges to copy public records, however. Similarly sized towns in Nash and Wilson counties don’t charge a service fee to copy public records regardless of the amount of time it takes.
"It might take extra time for us to be able to gather the information, but there would be no charge,” Stantonsburg Town Clerk Debra Beamon said. "We charge for copies, but we don’t charge any fee to get the information for them.”
Town officials in Bailey, the nearest town to Middlesex, and Nashville, the Nash County seat, said they wouldn’t charge a service fee even if public records took several hours to compile.
"Sometimes it could take several days before they could get it,” Bailey Town Clerk Becky Smith said, "but they could get it.”
Lucama’s town clerk said her town doesn’t charge service fees and fulfilling public records requests has never interfered with her other job duties.
"Anyone who comes in, we try to get them anything they want,” Town Clerk Tammy Keesler said. "The only thing is we tell them it might take a little time.”
Elm City Town Administrator Jonathan Russell echoed that sentiment.
"We would need some additional time to get that together for a large request, but there would be no additional charge,” he said.
The city of Wilson charges 5 cents per page for black-and-white copies, 10 cents for color copies and flat rates for videocassettes, DVDs and audiotapes. Wilson has no automatic service charge for certain requests, and city spokesman Matt Shaw said officials will email public records available in digital forms for free.
"I think on the whole, the city is trying to be open and helpful,” Shaw said. "We want to be as helpful as we can without trying to charge anybody anything.”
‘BAD WORKING RELATIONSHIP’
Holt and Johnson speak regularly at Middlesex town meetings and have criticized commissioners for what they feel is poor maintenance of the town’s public parks. Since Holt began attending town meetings last July, she said her relationship with the mayor and town board has become adversarial.
Holt and Johnson attend town meetings in blue T-shirts with "Citizens for a Better Middlesex” printed on the back. They said the questions they ask during those meetings go unanswered.
"It’s not like we’re trying to make anyone look bad,” Johnson said. "We’re asking simple questions. Why can’t we get simple answers?”
The mayor said Middlesex commissioners don’t typically respond to questions during the public comment portion of town meetings.
"As a rule, we do not answer public comment questions,” Lewis said. "Most boards don’t. They’re coming in and talking during public comment, but they’re not doing any follow-up.”
Holt said she has a "bad working relationship” with town officials and pointed to an email exchange between her and Shelly Woodruff, the town administrative assistant. Holt said her comments to the board weren’t recorded accurately in Aug. 13 meeting minutes. She asked Woodruff to revise the minutes in a Sept. 17 email, but said she didn’t receive a reply until Oct. 9.
"I just wanted to let you know that I did not respond to this email because Lu Harvey instructed me not to respond,” Woodruff wrote.
Lewis said town commissioners had already approved the minutes and he didn’t feel the correction was necessary since state law doesn’t require public boards to keep word-for-word transcripts.
"I think it was wrong that he instructed you not to respond,” Holt wrote in a reply to Woodruff’s email. "Because of this, he also lets the citizens know that the office is not responsive to citizen requests and comments.”
Lewis said the town has an "open-door policy” and Holt’s and Johnson’s concerns about Middlesex parks could be better addressed if they met with officials at Town Hall.
"As of yet, neither one has been in this office to sit down and talk about a park,” he said. "They just stand up in public comment and quote the minutes of something that happened before.”
Johnson said he and Holt are pointing out the problems in order to find solutions.
"Our heart and soul’s in it,” Johnson said. "We want things to be right. We care about the town.”
Middlesex commissioners are scheduled to meet at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall, 10232 S. Nash St. Lewis said the board has no plans to discuss its policy on public record fees.
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