Politics & Government

Open government advocates: McCrory breaking transparency promise

Gov. Pat McCrory
Gov. Pat McCrory

When Pat McCrory ran for governor in 2008 and 2012, he promised to make state government more transparent.

“People are fed up with the culture of state government, a culture of inaccessibility, … (a) culture of secrecy, and sadly a culture of corruption,” McCrory said at a 2008 campaign event in Brunswick County.

But when it comes to fulfilling requests for public records, advocates of open government say, McCrory’s administration has failed to live up to his promise.

A lawsuit filed against the McCrory administration this week reflects a growing frustration over the obstacles to obtaining public records in North Carolina.

The lawsuit, filed by the Observer and several other news organizations and public interest groups, alleges that the administration has shown “patterns and practices of delay, obfuscation, non-responsiveness, foot-dragging and stonewalling.”

While previous administrations have also violated the state public records law, open government advocates say, McCrory’s team appears to have taken delay tactics to new lengths.

Bringing together a number of competing news outlets, the lawsuit spells out many cases in which organizations had to wait more than a year for public records.

“The wait times people are experiencing are way beyond anything we’ve seen before,” said Hugh Stevens, a veteran media lawyer who served as one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “It’s almost as if someone realized that stonewalling and foot-dragging are effective ways to circumvent the law.”

It’s almost as if someone realized that stonewalling and foot-dragging are effective ways to circumvent the law.

Media lawyer Hugh Stevens

In a statement issued after the lawsuit was filed Tuesday, the governor’s office said that McCrory’s administration is a “champion of transparency and fair and legitimate news gathering.

“However, some members of the media and political organizations are exploiting the public records law and filing overly-broad and duplicative records requests that gum up the day-to-day operations of state government.”

The administration said it has been overwhelmed by more than 22,000 records requests, and that there isn’t sufficient state money to meet the records requests unless funds are taken from other needed services.

‘A significant change’

Under the North Carolina public records law, state agencies are required to provide copies of requested records “as promptly as possible.”

But in many cases, the lawsuit alleges, Cabinet agencies failed to do that. Among them:

▪ In 2012, The Charlotte Observer requested a database from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which included information about every death that medical examiners had investigated since 2001.

“The complete database was provided only after a year’s delay, numerous reiterations of the Observer’s request, and threats of legal action,” the lawsuit states.

▪ Indy Week, a publication based in Durham, requested copies of McCrory’s travel records on Nov. 8, 2013, but the governor’s office produced no records until 16 months later.

▪ In July 2014, The News & Observer of Raleigh requested emails sent to and from officials of the Department of Administration regarding the potential sale of the Dorothea Dix property to the city of Raleigh. But the newspaper received none of the emails until June 9, 2015 – almost a year later.

▪ On July 11, 2014, the Alamance News requested records from the Department of Commerce related to more than a dozen local economic development projects. The department provided records about one project on Sept. 10. But to date, the newspaper has received no records on any of the other projects, the lawsuit says.

“It seems as though things have crawled to a halt under this administration,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. “These delays are a significant change.”

Kurt Naas, a Cornelius businessman, knows the value of public records. He recently won an open government award for using public records to inform the debate over widening Interstate 77 north of uptown Charlotte.

He says government agencies can easily exploit weaknesses in the state public records law. For those who violate the law, he said, “there’s really no penalty” – unless the records requester files a lawsuit and wins. That’s hard for ordinary citizens to do, he said.

People are fed up with the culture of state government, a culture of inaccessibility, ... (a) culture of secrecy, and sadly a culture of corruption.

Pat McCrory at a 2008 campaign event

And North Carolina’s law, unlike those in some other states, spells out no deadlines for responding to public records requests.

Under South Carolina law, by contrast, public agencies have 15 working days to say whether they will provide the requested records or claim an exemption.

Practicing what he condemned?

The lawsuit also alleges that Cabinet agencies have imposed unjustified fees for retrieving, copying and inspecting public records.

On Oct. 18, 2013, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked to inspect records relating to a proposed quarry development.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources refused to allow inspection of the documents unless the law center paid a special fee, the lawsuit states.

Jones, of the open government coalition, said he’s been told that some agencies charge as much as $100 an hour for the work required to fulfill records requests.

“(McCrory) seemed to run against a closed, inaccessible, unaccountable Good Old Boy network that was very corrupt,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a campaign watchdog group. “He’s done many of the same things with regard to public records.”

But others defend the administration’s record on transparency.

Appearing on a radio show earlier this week, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said the volume of records requests is so large that they cannot all be fulfilled promptly.

He charged that some groups and media organizations are requesting public records for no purpose other than to determine how quickly they will be provided. He called that a “shameful” waste of taxpayer dollars. He cited no specific examples.

People who work for news outlets and public interest groups aren’t the only ones who should care about access to public records, advocates say.

“The accountability of government lies in the public records,” said Mike Tadych, one of the media lawyers who are representing plaintiffs.

“One of the mainstays of McCrory’s platform was returning transparency to government,” Tadych said. “I think that people have a right to hold him accountable on that.”

Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

Alexander: 704-358-5060