@NCCapitol

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Governor's Office, media coalition settle records suit

Posted August 15

Gov. Pat McCrory, left, and Attorney General Roy Cooper debate the issues in the gubernatorial campaign on Oct. 11, 2016.

— A coalition of media and advocacy groups that sued former Gov. Pat McCrory's administration over alleged violations of the state's public records law has now settled the claim with the state after a two-year court battle.

The original lawsuit was filed in July 2015 by a group that included Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL News. It accused the McCrory administration of "regularly and repeatedly" violating North Carolina records laws by delaying the release of records and charging high fees for producing them – a claim McCrory's office vehemently denied.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who unseated his Republican rival in the 2016 election, inherited the suit against the administration when he took office in January.

The state will pay $250,000 in attorneys fees to the coalition, according to the settlement agreement finalized Tuesday. The agreement also lays out a number of promises by the Cooper administration to "continue to comply with the Public Records Act conscientiously and in good faith."

Cooper's administration acknowledges in the settlement that agencies can't charge for the inspection of records, a practice that had gained some traction under McCrory through a provision in the law that allowed "special service charges" for requests that required extensive resources.

The agreement also notes that responding to requests is an "important and necessary function of government" and that Cooper's agencies will be staffed and trained to provide records as promptly as possible without discriminating between requesters. There will be no special treatment, in other words, for media companies or law firms that routinely file requests.

Cooper's administration agreed under the settlement to develop new guidance to ensure compliance with public records law. An interim version of those new rules will be posted online for public comment.

Cooper spokesperson Ford Porter said in an email that written guidelines are "in the works," but did not provide a specific timeline. In an emailed statement, he said the release of public records "is the law and an important part of public duty."

"Blocking access hurts government transparency," Porter said. "The governor has directed his administration to fix this problem, and today’s settlement will be a positive step forward."

Gov. Pat McCrory

The coalition – which included media companies such as The News & Observer, Indy Week and CBS North Carolina as well as the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center and N.C. Policy Watch – had originally sought with the lawsuit to compel the McCrory administration to produce records from requests that had been pending for months.

But it also sought a first-of-its-kind ruling in North Carolina from the court: That a government actor was knowingly violating a provision of state law to hand over records "as promptly as possible," as required by state law.

The McCrory administration repeatedly denied claims that it was violating the law and maintained that its agencies were "champions of transparency and fair and legitimate news gathering."

PROMISE TRACKER Gov. Roy Cooper campaign promise tracker

Yet, several of the requests noted in the original lawsuit, including those filed by WRAL News, had been pending for more than a year. Tests to probe how quickly state agencies responded to records requests also showed McCrory's office in particular lagged far behind other agencies.

Mike Tadych, an attorney at the Raleigh-based firm representing the coalition, said in a statement that the settlement agreement at least tacitly acknowledges that the McCrory administration "repeatedly and systematically violated North Carolina's public records law by stonewalling and foot dragging in response to public records requests or, in many instances, simply ignoring them."

During the final gubernatorial debate in 2016, Cooper made responding quickly to records requests a tangible campaign pledge. That pledge has so far gone untested by WRAL's Cooper Campaign Promise Tracker.

WRAL News reporters plan to evaluate Cooper's progress on records requests a year into the governor's tenure.

Full disclosure: Public Records Reporter Tyler Dukes was involved in mediation in this lawsuit.

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