Attorney general presses governor on open records

Special charges for producing "extensive" public records requests "violate the spirit and perhaps the legislative intent" of the state's public records laws.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Attorney General Roy Cooper is pressing Gov. Pat McCrory to roll back "special service charges" imposed on certain requests for public records. 

Under the policy, such charges are incurred "for any requests that require agency personnel more than 30 minutes to locate, copy and refile," Cooper writes. The special charge includes both the physical costs of making copies and the cost of the salaries and benefits of the state workers involved in making the copies. 

"I believe these policies violate the spirit and perhaps the legislative intent of the North Carolina Public Records Act," Cooper wrote to McCroy on Jan. 28. Cooper also notes that some counties have begun charging similar fees, a practice his office is discouraging. 

WRAL News has paid or tentatively agreed to pay some special service charges under protest. The Associated Press and other news outlets have also encountered and protested the charges. Lawyers for media organizations met with the McCrory administration in the fall, but there has been no resolution to the complaints.

In his letter, Cooper acknowledges that some special charges are allowed by law, although the law is vague and does not clearly define what is allowed.

"It was neither the legislative intent nor the spirit of the public record laws to expect taxpayers to subsidize large, time consuming and expensive public records requests that we so frequently receive today," Stephens writes. 

Stephens also chides Cooper for offering his perspective to local governments.

"I do not understand why you believe it to be a proper exercise of your official position as Attorney General to send unsolicited public policy advice on official state letterhead to local governments who have done nothing contrary to state law," Stephens writes. 

In his letter, Cooper suggests that the General Assembly may need to make changes to clarify North Carolina's open records statute. In fact, a trio of state senators filed a bill during the 2013 legislative session. Sens. Tommy Tucker, Thom Goolsby, and Wesley Meredith, all Republicans, filed a measure that would have limited the special charges an agency could have imposed. Staff time, if charged, would have been "computed based upon the minimum wage in this State" under the bill, which never emerged from committee. 

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