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No fees for access to public records

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

The law in North Carolina is clear. Public records belong to the public.

We oppose any attempts by any public body to impose fees that would discourage access to public documents.

We believe if the proposal before the Brunswick County Board of Education moves forward, that’s exactly what will happen.

Last week, Brunswick County Schools’ Policy Committee discussed adopting fees for “excessive public records requests.” Board members will review this at their Dec. 1 meeting.

Administrators, specifically Superintendent Katie McGee, claim many staff hours and attorney fees are incurred when some public records requests are made. Fees are sought to help recoup manpower hours and related expenses.

However, according to the law, and in an opinion backed by the North Carolina Press Association’s legal counsel, charging such fees would not be legal.

State law allows public agencies to charge a “minimal cost” for the actual reproduction expenses of public records, but it does not extend to fees to cover staff hours and attorney time.

General Statute 132-6.2 states, “no public agency shall charge a fee for an uncertified copy of a public record that exceeds that actual cost to the agency of making the copy.” That subsection further outlines “actual cost” to be limited to the “direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of the public record.”

Further, we would say if a public agency calls upon its attorney for guidance and assistance in responding to a public records request, it does so by choice; the public should not be expected to pay for it.

The district’s technology director Leonard Jenkins has said he thinks the district should also charge fees for access to its new electronic e-mail viewing station. Recently, a terminal was set up to allow citizens to access copies of the district’s e-mails via a computer terminal at its central office.

Mike Tadych, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, said electronic copies should not cost citizens and further explained citizens can make requests for documents in any form. Citizens wanting access to e-mail do not have to use the e-mail terminal.

The public owns these documents, not administrators, not the board. Citizens should have access to what is rightfully—and legally—theirs.

We strongly urge this board not to adopt fees for access to public records. These records already belong to the public; they should not be expected to pay for services to provide them.

The law specifies “actual costs” and staff and attorney hours to compile these records are not part of them.

Most importantly, complying with public records law isn’t a burden and it certainly isn’t optional; compliance is mandatory. Doing anything that would deter access to public records should be avoided at all costs. Failure to do so shortchanges the public and violates the law.