North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and Gov. Pat McCrory's office are at odds over when state governments should charge news media outlets and citizens special fees for requesting public records.
Cooper wrote recently to the governor questioning why his Cabinet agencies were issuing "special service charges" to those seeking public records. The charge is allowed by law but Cooper doesn't believe it should kick in after an employee works 30 minutes on the request, as McCrory's administration has decided in its policies in some circumstances.
"I believe these policies violate the spirit and perhaps the legislative intent of the North Carolina Public Records Act," said Cooper, a Democratic ex-state legislator and sponsor of previous public records laws. He urged McCrory, a Republican, to reconsider the policies, adding "the people are poorly served by barriers to obtain information they already own." Cooper is considering a run for governor in 2016.
State law says the records of state and local agencies "are the property of the people" and that people may obtain them "free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law."
McCrory general counsel Bob Stephens disagreed with Cooper, writing him Friday that the special charge is allowed by law. A special service charge can be incurred by a state or local government when the request requires "extensive use" of IT resources or clerical or supervisory assistance. No time threshold is given. Stephens cited a Florida law defining an extensive public records request as being 15 minutes.
"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 record requests that we so frequently receive today," Stephens wrote.
The changes, which occurred in McCrory's first year in office, have resulted in news media outlets being charged hundreds of dollars for digital email and other electronic documents that previously were provided for free, or at the cost of a CD. Individuals also can be charged the extra hourly fee, which Cooper said in one agency reached more than $51 per hour when information technology is involved.
Stephens said the McCrory administration "is committed to transparency, open government and broad access to public records" and that agencies and the Governor's Office "routinely fill public record requests in a timely manner at little or no cost."
Cooper said in his Jan. 27 letter that his office doesn't issue a special charge when workers review requested documents to ensure confidential information exempt under the records law isn't released. Stephens responded that no state agency charges for that and asked why Cooper was congratulating his own office for doing the same.
Stephens said the University of North Carolina system and some cities also have special-charge policies for extensive requests. Cooper said he would send municipalities a copy of his letter to local governments engaging in the practice.
Attorneys for news media outlets met with McCrory administration officials in October to discuss the new policy.
The competing letters are the latest salvos between Cooper and McCrory's office. In the fall, Stephens told reporters that Cooper's strong personal opposition to an elections overhaul law being challenged in court "compromised his ability to represent the state of North Carolina." McCrory's office hired its own outside lawyer to work with Cooper, who has said he can separate his personal views to carry out his duties as attorney general.