TAR HEEL VIEW: Cooper stood up for transparency; will lawmakers?

Gov. Roy Cooper will protect access to public records his office and all executive branch agencies maintain, but in order to spread the sunshine to town halls and county boardrooms, the General Assembly must step in.

Cooper has settled a lawsuit filed against his predecessor, Gov. Pat McCrory, by a coalition of media companies including the News & Observer of Raleigh and The Charlotte Observer. The state’s two largest newspapers accused the McCrory administration of dragging its feet on some public records requests and charging excessive fees to fulfill others.

The state will pay $250,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ legal fees and Cooper’s administration agreed to turn over public records to requesters “as promptly as possible,” according to the News & Observer.

As part of the settlement, the Cooper administration rejected the practice of public record price-gouging. McCrory’s office relied on a provision of state law allowing a “special service charge” for records requests that require “extensive use of information technology resources” or labor.

The N.C. Public Records Act doesn’t define what qualifies as “extensive” demands on computer systems or workers, and there’s the rub.

For any records request that took a nanosecond more than 30 minutes to complete, the McCrory administration would charge requesters the full salary cost of the worker compiling and copying public records.

No judge is likely to agree that a half-hour – 1.25 percent of a 40-hour work week – meets the threshold for “extensive” labor demands. After Cooper, who was then attorney general, advised against the practice in a January 2014 letter to McCrory, his staff moved the time limit to four hours.

Courts have yet to weigh in with any guidelines on when the special service charge can be levied, and while four hours is a lot more reasonable than 30 minutes, it doesn’t seem like much of a burden for large state agencies with public information officers and clerical support staff. A major part of their job, after all, is fulfilling public records requests.

Under the settlement Cooper signed, there is no more ticking clock – at least for the state’s executive-branch departments. But cities, towns and counties can still set their own slapdash rules for when they’ll charge an arm and a leg.

Middlesex maintains its 30-minute threshold for staff-time surcharges despite facing statewide scrutiny in 2013 and 2014 spurred by coverage in The Wilson Times and The Spring Hope Enterprise.

Cooper told Middlesex to knock it off, but his advice didn’t have the force of law. As governor, he still lacks the power to rein in local governments. That’s the legislature’s job.

Absent either a court ruling or a new law, Middlesex is likely to keep its meter running. Other towns might follow suit, adopting their own arbitrary time limits and sticking taxpayers with the ballooning bill.

“The people are poorly served by barriers to information they already own,” Cooper wrote in the 2014 letter to McCrory.

Cooper has done all he can to advance open and transparent government on his own. Now it’s the legislature’s turn.

The Wilson Times