Requests for NC public records result in long waits, fees
In honor of Sunshine Week, WRAL is out with a story that examines the long delays and exorbitant fees that result from public records requests of Gov. McCrory's administration. Despite his campaign promises, public record requests take longer than ever to fulfill and increasingly require costly fees.
In July 2013, the office of Gov. Pat McCrory announced the sudden resignation his public safety secretary after only six months on the job.
The statement said Kieran Shanahan was leaving to spend more time with his wife and focus on his law firm, but persistent whispers around the state capital suggested there was more to the story.
In response, The Associated Press filed a public records request that September for emails Shanahan sent or received while secretary.
Nearly 19 months later, AP is still waiting.
So far, the N.C. Department of Public Safety has managed to produce about 500 of Shanahan's emails, including the automated updates from his spam filter. But about 2,600 emails remain, waiting to be cleared for release.
"We simply do not have enough staff to dedicate one person, or more, to get all the requests we have along with our many other duties," said Pamela Walker, the agency's communications director, said Thursday. "That includes working in emergency operations to push out information to the public during a disaster such as snow storms, tornados, hurricanes ... and so much more. Not whining, just reality."
At the current rate, the department's staff of nine full-time public information officers would release the last of Shanahan's emails sometime around the year 2020.
Under North Carolina law, government documents "are the property of the people" and should be provided "as promptly as possible" at "free or at minimal cost." Access to such records is essential to journalists and other members of the public seeking information the actions of government officials and how they are spending taxpayer money.
As a gubernatorial candidate, McCrory, a Republican, pledged he would make state government transparent and accountable. Since taking office, however, McCrory's administration has relied on a new and unprecedented interpretation of North Carolina's public records law to assess a "special service charge" on records requests they consider too burdensome.
For the Shanahan request, AP received an initial invoice in late 2013 for $74 — the purported cost for the two hours it took to have an IT technician to retrieve the secretary's emails from a computer server.
The department said staff would then need to review each email to ensure it didn't contain confidential material, such as personnel records. Under its current fee schedule, the agency may charge for the hourly wages and benefits of employees working on records requests taking more than 4 hours to process.