Imagine trying to get public records from your town and the official response is that you owe them $26 an hour for the documents. Well, this is not a nightmare; it happened recently in Middlesex, N.C. According to the Wilson Times, the town of Middlesex told someone who requested public records he needed to pay $26 an hour for the documents. So what ground, if any, does the town of Middlesex have a right to do this?
Here at Civitas we do many public records requests and we have run into situations where cost becomes a obstacle. When the question does come up, we look to the General Statutes to answer the questions.
§ 132‑1. "Public records" defined.
(a)"Public record" or "public records" shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions. Agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions shall mean and include every public office, public officer or official (State or local, elected or appointed), institution, board, commission, bureau, council, department, authority or other unit of government of the State or of any county, unit, special district or other political subdivision of government.
(b) The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law. As used herein, "minimal cost" shall mean the actual cost of reproducing the public record or public information. (1935, c. 265, s. 1; 1975, c. 787, s. 1; 1995, c. 388, s. 1.)
§ 132‑6 Inspection and examination of records.
(a) Every custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian's custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person, and shall, as promptly as possible, furnish copies thereof upon payment of any fees as may be prescribed by law. As used herein, "custodian" does not mean an agency that holds the public records of other agencies solely for purposes of storage or safekeeping or solely to provide data processing.
(b) No person requesting to inspect and examine public records, or to obtain copies thereof, shall be required to disclose the purpose or motive for the request.
(c) No request to inspect, examine, or obtain copies of public records shall be denied on the grounds that confidential information is commingled with the requested nonconfidential information. If it is necessary to separate confidential from nonconfidential information in order to permit the inspection, examination, or copying of the public records, the public agency shall bear the cost of such separation on the following schedule:
(e) The application of this Chapter is subject to the provisions of Article 1 of Chapter 121 of the General Statutes, the North Carolina Archives and History Act.
(f) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section, the inspection or copying of any public record which, because of its age or condition could be damaged during inspection or copying, may be made subject to reasonable restrictions intended to preserve the particular record. (1935, c. 265, s. 6; 1987, c. 835, s. 1; 1995, c. 388, s. 2; 2005‑429, s. 1.1.)
It seems pretty clear in the General Statutes that the “people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost.” While the issue in Middlesex is still being looked into by officials, the hope is that the attorneys involved will rule in favor of those making the public records request.
Civitas has consulted some county's attorneys when we have been met with obstacles in our public records requests. Vince Durham, the attorney for Nash County, was very helpful when we had submitted a request with the Nash County Board of Elections for all documents pertaining to problems in the November 2012 Election. The Nash County Board of Elections Director stated that he had no way of sending us the documents electronically and in turn would have to charge us for the copies and postage. When we contacted Durham, he quickly resolved the matter and in less than a week we received the documents at no charge.
There should be great concern over the town of Middlesex failing to strive for openness – and apparently flouting state law.