While we await an even more-detailed blueprint to the governmental fulfillment of public record requests from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, there is much to applaud in the updated guide recently released by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.
That Cooper chose to release such an update — which applies to all levels of state government, not only cabinet-level employees and commissions — is significant especially as it begins to address some ambiguous language found in the state law.
In defining a public record, the guide rightly indicates that all records of governments are presumed to be public unless otherwise protected. This includes personal email, phone records or social media posts that may have been used to conduct public business.
Where state law indicates that requested public records must be released “as promptly as possible,” new guidance adds that the release of records cannot be delayed under the premise of waiting for approval, while those involved in the record are contacted or to avoid embarrassment.
Requests that are denied must be accompanied by a reason at the time of denial that includes a state statute explaining the circumstances under which the record cannot be released — and whether those circumstances are likely to change.
Another thorn that has pricked more than one record request concerns the cost of producing the public document. State law indicates a “reasonable” cost that can include only paper and ink, and not the time it takes to produce the record. New guidance recommends a fee of five cents per page, with no fees exceeding the cost of making the copies, and no charge for public record inspection or electronic production.
Why does any of this matter?
Government’s business is the people’s business, and as such, we have a lawful right to transparency from our elected officials. Cooper’s strong statement supporting that right through access to public records inches us closer to both the letter and spirit of that law.