Should people who want public records from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools pay a fee? The school board will hold a public hearing Tuesday on a policy that would set charges for information that's now free.
The proposed revision to the CMS public information policy authorizes the superintendent to "set procedures and reasonable fees for provision of records to the public, news media and others requesting records and information as allowed under NC law."
Chief Communication Officer Tracy Russ said the new fees would be similar to those charged by other local government bodies and would be designed to cover "the direct cost of materials and labor associated with responding to public records requests."
Mecklenburg County's public information policy outlines fees for records that require hard-copy delivery — 3 to 5 cents per page of paper copied, 49 cents for a CD-ROM and $3 for a DVD copy of county commissioners' meetings. It provides for additional labor charges for requests that "require an extensive use of clerical or information technology resources."
Labor or research fees are where public record requests can become costly. Last fall a Cornelius charter school demanded $7,500 up front to fulfill a Texas watchdog group's request for nine months of emails. Thunderbird Prep Academy said the fee included 87 cents a page for copies and payments to a lawyer who would review the documents to make sure confidential information was redacted.
State law allows "reasonable" charges but is not specific. Experts on North Carolina law said $7,500 was not reasonable.
In 2012, CMS responded to an Observer request for emails related to a school board member's travel expenses by saying the district would charge $95 an hour for an electronic archiving contractor to retrieve the messages. CMS provided the emails at no charge after the Observer reported on that fee.
In Mecklenburg County labor charges are rare, said Rick Christenbury, a public information specialist for Mecklenburg County. In his six years of handling such requests, he said he could recall three times the labor charge was levied.
"Those were for 'data miners' or others who requested large amounts of information that used extra staff time to compile," Christenbury said. "Typically, we pull the records at no cost and in good faith and provide for as low a cost as possible."
Both CMS and Mecklenburg County are planning to improve their public information request systems. Russ said CMS will introduce an online portal for people seeking public information. Christenbury said the county "will switch to a new online system that will follow requests from initiation to delivery and streamline the overall process."
Tuesday's hearing on the CMS policy takes place at the regular board meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. in the meeting chamber of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. The meeting also includes an opportunity for brief public comments on any topic. To speak, call 980-343-5139 by noon Tuesday or sign up on site before the meeting begins.