N.C. State’s public records policy contradicts the law

North Carolina State University Chief Communications Officer Joe Hice posted a blog today announcing that the school has updated its public records policy. While I applaud the university for focusing on this important topic and trying to stay current, I believe some of the guidelines contradict the state public records law.

I contacted media law Attorney Mike Tadych (pronounced “Toddy”) to get some insight. Here are some of N.C. State’s guidelines that concern me. I have included some of my and Mike’s responses :

Requests need to be made in writing:

“There is no requirement (in the law) that it needs to be made in writing,” said Mike. ” That said, we encourage people to put requests in writing, but you can also fax, call, e-mail or write it on a paper bag and hand it to somebody.”

I believe N.C. State should change the wording in its new policy to explain that written requests are preferred, not mandatory. The policy gives a mailing address where requests should be sent, but asking people to use snail mail really slows down the process. If they want to suggest that requests be made in writing, at least give an e-mail address.

Media requests must be sent to the communications office:

“Superior court decisions have overturned the notion of a gatekeeper,” said Mike. “The person in charge of the office where the record would be kept is the custodian.”

I understand the desire to keep the communications office in the loop, but that is not the responsibility of the requester. If I know which employee has the record I need, I will contact him or her directly. If the employee wants to alert the communications office about my request, he or she can do that. But that person still bears the responsibility of fulfilling the request.

Other individuals (non-media) must submit requests to the records officer:

I have several concerns about this guideline. First, it separates media requests from the general public’s requests. In the eyes of the law, every request should be given the same importance. And, once again, the university is setting up a gatekeeper and telling individuals that they must work through the records officer instead of the custodian.

“I would be concerned about the risk of (the records custodian) being sued,” said Mike. “It’s incumbent upon them to adhere to the law, not just the school policy.

Special service charge for extraordinary public records requests:

Under the university’s new policy, the school can add a special service charge onto your bill if your request requires “extensive use of personnel.”

“If preparation of the response to the request exceeds four (4) hours, the university will charge a presumed rate of $18.00 per hour for the additional time,” the policy states.

Under the state public records law, officials can collect any actual costs that are incurred, but Mike and I have some concerns about the school’s $18/hour over 4 hours guideline.

“Four hours is somewhat arbitrary,” said Mike. “When does the four hours start?”

I’m curious how school officials decided that $18/hour was the magic number. What if an employee who makes less than $18/hour is gathering the records?

Another concern is how much time school personnel are spending redacting private info from public records. The requester should not be charged for that time. The law states that the public agency should bear the cost of separating private info.

Instead of focusing so much attention on collecting fees, I think the school should tell taxpayers how it is working to collect and compile more records electronically.

“If they keep crappy records, I don’t think you should have to pay for that,” said Mike.

——

These are some of the main concerns I have about N.C. State’s updated public records policy. I hope they take a second look at it and write guidelines that are more in line with state law.

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