Public records shouldn’t cost $54 an hour

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One of the responsibilities of public employees in a government office is to be able provide records upon request to the people who pay the employees’ salaries. For the most part, that would be us.

We the people of North Carolina pay for the buildings, computers and security systems used to protect and store public records. We also pay the salaries and benefits of the people who maintain those records.

So any fees we face for requesting copies of those records should be minimal, at best. Certainly not to the tune of $26 an hour, as the town of Middlesex has demanded. Or $54 an hour, a charge established by Gov. Pat McCrory’s office.

Those exorbitant charges cut the heart and soul out of North Carolina’s Public Records laws.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has written a memo to McCrory, arguing that the kinds of fees the governor is charging violate the spirit of the law. Cooper should know. As a state senator from Nash County in the 1990s and early 2000s, Cooper was one of the chief architects of North Carolina’s Public Records policy.

McCrory has complained that his office has been swamped by vaguely worded requests from reporters for internal memos and correspondence. “We want to see every email your office has received since January 2013,” one request might read.

The governor has a point, but he also has a responsibility to help members of the public find what they’re looking for. There can be little doubt that the governor’s office receives hundreds of emails every week. That’s a huge volume, but it’s one that computers can readily sort, given enough information.

Establishing a process to make sorting easier would alleviate a lot of stress for the governor’s office and for reporters and interested citizens. And it shouldn’t come at a cost of $54 an hour.


What should it cost?

The time spent by a public employee to gather and print records takes away from the time he or she could be spending on government business. Why should all of the taxpayers have to pay for what benefits only one individual? The salary of the person making the copies is not the only thing to be considered. There are also copying costs, materials, office expenses, etc. all being used exclusively for one individual. I have no problem with charges being in line with actual expenses involved. So, Telegram, what would you charge if you were in the same position with say a stockholder who came in and said, "Give me copies of all the emails between the officers of the company, all advertisers, reporters, and employees." The charge should be in line with the expenses involved in providing the service. Certainly all of the taxpayers pay for the services of the daily administration of the government. We shouldn't have to pay for the whims of people who bog the system down by asking for copies of thousands of records, just for personal, investigatory purposes of a reporter or a political foe.

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