Easy access to public documents is critical for citizens

Easy access to public documents is critical for citizens

Kevin Griffin

Living in a fairly open society, we come to expect a certain level of access into what our government does.

Public access to documents is a necessary component for the type of free society to which we aspire.

But we in the state are facing issues of access to these records, with both state and local governments charging fees to obtain public records, according to the News & Observer. Attorney General Roy Cooper sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office Jan. 28 complaining that the policy of placing special records charges on public records requests violated the spirit of the law.

Currently, the government charges special fees, up to $51.47 per hour for some agencies, when state employees spend more than 30 minutes on a request, according to the News & Observer.

For its part, the McCrory administration defends the charges as necessary to alleviate the burden of large records requests on taxpayers.

While the fees are legal, the way the government is now charging and assessing fees violates the spirit of the law, as well as the foundational principle of public access to information.

Chapter 132 of N.C. General Statutes defines public records as the “property of the people,” and states that they shall be available “free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law.” “Minimal cost” here refers to the cost of reproducing the documents.

But another section stipulates that special charges may be levied if “extensive use of information technology resources,” among other resources, is required for processing the request.

The law then does allow service charges, but it also states plainly that these records belong to the public. Therefore, government has a responsibility to see that records are readily available to citizens.

Both the standard for the charges and the cost violate the principle and impede citizens and reporters from important information.

Simply saying that 30 minutes of work is the standard for triggering the charge is inconsistent with the public interest value at stake.

A more concrete standard should be used, one that more closely measures the amount of resources expended before the charges kick in.

Both citizens and news outlets have complained about the costs

Becky Strickland, a Middlesex resident, faced the special service charge and ended up paying $415 for “year’s worth of the mayor’s emails,” according to the News & Observer.

Additionally, several media outlets, including the Associated Press, have opposed the fees, according to WRAL.

The way government in the state is conducting these charges is clearly unfair toward the rights to public records. This is not just something that applies to journalists and media outlets, but to all citizens who have a stake in what the government does.

Government should do whatever possible to make access easy, but that is not happening in this case.

Kevin Griffin, a sophomore journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.