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Governor’s office cites Asheville, Charlotte in public records extra fees debate, but cities rarely charge them

By Jon Elliston
carolinapublicpress.org

In the dispute over how much state and local government agencies should charge for providing public records, Gov. Pat McCrory’s top attorney cited Asheville and Charlotte’s policies to justify a rise in fees. But according to staffers in both cities who handle records requests, the two municipalities rarely, if ever, levy extra charges.

An exception to the North Carolina public records law has sparked a debate between Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is expected to run for governor in 2016, and McCrory, a Republican.

In a Jan. 28 letter to McCrory, Cooper charged that the governor is overseeing a spike in special service charges that “violate the spirit and perhaps the legislative intent” of the public records law.

On Feb. 7, McCrory’s general counsel, Bob Stephens, fired back, saying, “This administration is committed to transparency, open government, and broad access to public records.”

In their letters, both Cooper and Stephens noted that state law permits fees for “extensive” public records searches.

In his letter, Stephens argued that many governmental entities charge more for “extensive requests.”

“In response (to large requests), cities like Charlotte and Asheville have instituted special service charge policies,” he wrote.

Staffers for both cities, however, say that they rarely, if ever, tack on search charges for public records.

“We don’t charge for requests, other than occasional costs for duplication,” said Dawa Hitch, the city of Asheville’s public information officer.

Carolyn Johnson, a senior deputy city attorney for Charlotte who often handles public records requests, said that the situation is similar in her city.

“We charge our actual costs to copy paper documents – 3 cents a page, because that’s what it costs us,” Johnson said. And most often, she said, public records are delivered to requesters electronically, free.

“We don’t charge for the staff’s time (spent gathering records), and not on the IT side either,” she said.

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