For Burke County Manager Bryan Steen, the public records requests were over the top.
One was from an out-of-state group asking for spreadsheets of the county’s outstanding checks, with amounts, dates and check numbers. Another, from the University of Massachusetts, sought five months of county emails for an academic study. Both required days of staff time to satisfy.
“I don’t think this kind of request is what our public records law is meant for,” Steen emailed his state senator, Republican Warren Daniel in 2014.
Last week Daniel and three fellow Senate Republicans introduced a measure that would block such requests. Senate Bill 649 would limit public records requests to North Carolina residents.
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The bill would make North Carolina one of few states in the country to limit public records requests to its own citizens. The N.C. Press Association is teaming with the N.C. Association of Broadcasters to fight the bill, which Press Association Attorney John Bussian calls bad policy.
The bill reignites the debate on what lengths governments must go in order to make public records available to the public.
“The public has right to know about government actions described in records regardless of residence,” said Bussian. “Closing access breeds suspicion instead of fostering confidence the way transparency does. Those who reside outside North Carolina, but have business here, deserve to have the same confidence in state government and its handling of personal and business matters as N.C. residents.”
Daniel said it’s a matter of priorities and resources.
“I don’t think 300 million people need access to the records of Burke County when 10 million already do,” he said. “I personally don’t see any need for an out-of-state entity to tie up county or state employee time with this kind of request.”
North Carolina’s public records are increasingly used by companies for marketing and other purposes. They’re also used by media organizations inside and outside the state.
In 2011, The New York Times examined records for 240,000 concealed handgun permits in North Carolina. It found over 2,400 permit holders had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors over a five-year period.
Jonathan Jones, executive director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, said the Senate bill could block such reporting.
“This is about as diametrically opposed to open government as you could get, short of saying we’re not going to have public records at all,” said Jones, who teaches media law at Elon University. “It’s putting a tremendous barrier before folks who want to get access to public information.”
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld a Virginia law that lets state agencies and local governments deny out-of-state records requests. The 1968 Virginia Freedom of Information Act limits access to “any citizens of the Commonwealth.”
“We’ve been opposed to (the law) for years and years and years,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “A person’s interest in a state doesn’t end at the border.”
In Morganton, Bryan Steen is trying to balance the demand for records and the resources to meet it.
“You want to do the right thing and if somebody has a valid question I want to do my best to answer it,” he said. “But some of these requests tends to take away so much from the county providing services to the taxpayers.”