For some agency records, wait times continue to mount

Posted March 19, 2014

N.C. Division of Archives and History

— For more than seven months, a Carteret County law firm has waited for the state's environmental regulator to hand over data about stranded sea turtles.

Another firm has waited eight months for state Department of Health and Human Services records on a mental health facility in Winston-Salem.

As of Wednesday, for exactly seven months and three days, WRAL News has waited for the same agency to supply two months of emails for the head of the state's massive and often troubled social services delivery system known as NC FAST. 

While we waited, 70,000 families in North Carolina were stuck for months without food stamp benefits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened $88 million in federal funding and DHHS began building a backlog of Medicaid cases for needy residents across the state.

 Sunshine state

This is the third of a multi-part series on open government to coincide with Sunshine Week, March 16 to 22.

Read part one to find out what constitutes a public record and how WRAL News uses these documents in its reporting. And check out part two for a closer look at the tensions between the availability of public records and the time and resources it takes government agencies to retrieve them.

Wait times for public records aren't a rarity for state government, despite a provision in North Carolina's public records law requiring agencies to provide public records "as promptly as possible." Government officials say it takes an enormous amount of time and resources to fill larger requests, which they say are popping up more and more with the explosion of electronic records.

As part of Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of transparency in government, WRAL News surveyed 16 state agencies on their public records practices and reviewed several agency logs tracking requests. Not every agency was able to definitively answer questions in the five-question survey, originally sent March 10.

Surveying the agencies

Cabinet Council of State
Administration Agriculture
DHHS Public Instr.
Commerce Insurance
Public Safety Sec. of State
Cultural Res. Justice
Revenue Auditor
DENR Labor
Transportation Treasurer

On March 10, WRAL News sent a five-question survey to 16 state agencies making up both the governor's cabinet and within the Council of State.

Survey questions
  • How does your agency track public records requests?
  • How many public records requests are pending at your agency right now?
  • How many public records requests did the agency process last year?
  • How long has your oldest public records request been pending?
  • What's the average time public records requests spent pending last year?

Because not all agencies track requests the same way, some answers were approximate or best estimates. One agency, the Office of the Secretary of State, was unable to provide many answers because it doesn't track requests.

But the responses show a range of workloads, average wait times and tracking practices across state government.

Big workloads mean more pending cases, longer waits

In 2013, the state Department of Labor says it processed about 1,130 public records requests, the bulk of which were related to health and safety cases.

Spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said about 115 requests are still pending – the oldest one since Nov. 16, 2011. But many cases like that one, which was for information on an ongoing investigation, can't be released until the investigation is complete.

"Though our goal is to process all public records requests as quickly as is practicable, for the reasons stated above, some requests remain pending longer than others," Quesenberry said in an email. "Generally speaking, those requests that have no statutory impediments are fulfilled in 30-60 days."

At the state Department of Transportation, officials completed 126 requests since they started tracking requests in April 2013. Another 49 are still pending, and the longest has waited for more than a year.

"The majority of our pending requests come from law firms who have requested sizable amounts of information, are asked if they can narrow the scope and then don’t respond," a prepared statement from the department said.

The records request workload is also high for DHHS, which in 2013 processed about 430 records requests, according to a log tracked by its communications office. Spokesman Kevin Howell said more requests were likely fulfilled in other agency departments as well. 

About 45 requests are still pending; all but one of those has been waiting longer than three months. Five of these, including two from WRAL News, have been in the agency's queue for longer than seven months.

Howell said these are outliers, largely because they're broad requests for emails or Medicaid data.

"Those that are small in scope, we attempt to fulfill immediately," he said. "Those that are large in scope, we still try to fill as promptly as possible, but there are a number of factors that slow turnaround time."

Howell said records like these have a lot of confidential information mixed in, making it essential for him to review the response before releasing it.

"There are so many confidentiality provisions with DHHS – probably more than any other agency," he said.

Howell, who is licensed to practice law in North Carolina, said he was hired in 2013 specifically to tackle legal issues with public records like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which protects patient privacy.

"To be honest, I'd rather have WRAL write a bad story about us than have the Office of Civil Rights say we violated HIPAA," he said.

Large requests can also put a strain on IT resources, Howell said, which are required anytime the agency receives a broad request. He pointed to problems with the state's automatic email archiving system called Mimosa, selected in 2009 by the administration of then-Gov. Bev Perdue. The system was implemented in the wake of secret email accounts kept by Perdue's predecessor, former Gov. Mike Easley.

"Mimosa is a system that is not very efficient," Howell said. "When you're talking about a large volume of emails, it can frequently bog down the computer."

On average, based on the agency's record request logs, it took DHHS about 40 days to fulfill requests in 2013.

But Howell said, despite the volume of request his office receives, the agency is committed to responding "promptly as possible and to the fullest extent of the law."

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  • sabsco Mar 20, 2014

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    You mean, like, Mike Easley, Mary Easley, Jim Black, and Meg Scott Phipps?
    How do you think "investigating" state government works? None of those stories could have come to full light without public records requests.