Courts & the Law, News

Got some advice about public records? Cooper wants to hear it

Gov. Roy Cooper is seeking feedback after developing guidance for state agencies on access to public records and open meetings.

His efforts, released at the end of last week, are just in time for Sunshine week, a national campaign to drive awareness to and celebrate open government.

Cooper’s guidelines address what constitutes a public record, how agencies choose to release public records, the timing of such releases, cost and denials. He is seeking online public comment through April 9.

“State employees and officials conduct the people’s business,” the guidelines state. “Our responsibility rests with following the law and providing members of the public with the information to which they are
legally and ethically entitled.”

State agencies may charge a “nominal” copying fee for records produced in printed format, recommended at 5 cents per page, but may not charge for inspecting public records or records produced electronically. If an agency is able to produce records in different forms (electronically vs. printed), it should provide the format requested.

The guidelines point out that the public records law requires no specific waiting period between the time of the request and the time of inspection. It adds, however, that the law also does not permit an automatic delay by the government in releasing public records, either to allow for approval of the disclosure or to notify those people identified in the public records.

“Public employees may not withhold records based on the agency or commission’s belief that immediate release of the records would not be ‘prudent or timely’ or cause embarrassment,” the guidelines state.

The Associated Press reported that the guidelines stem from a legal settlement reached last summer between Cooper’s administration and media outlets and public policy groups, including the North Carolina Justice Center, that had sued predecessor Gov. Pat McCrory in 2015.

The McCrory administration was accused of delaying the release of public documents and charging excessive fees to get them. Cooper became the defendant in that case when he succeeded McCrory, and his administration was ordered to pay $250,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs.

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