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The Carolina Public Press has this piece up boiling down the ongoing issues media outlets in the state have with a new policy under the McCrory administration to charge “special services charges” for public records requests that take more than a half-hour for staff to compile.

From Carolina Public Press, a non-profit news organization based in Western North Carolina:

In the growing dispute over how much state and local government agencies should charge for providing public records, Gov. Pat McCrory‘s top attorney cited Asheville and Charlotte’s policies to justify a rise in fees. But according to staffers in both cities who handle records requests, the two municipalities rarely, if ever, levy extra charges.

At issue is how to interpret part of North Carolina’s public records law, which generally asserts that public records should be available for free or for the costs of duplicating them.

An exception in the law has sparked a debate between N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is expected to run for governor in 2016, and McCrory, a Republican.

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Rose Hoban, NC Health News

Rose Hoban, NC Health News

Rose Hoban of N.C. Health News, a non-profit journalism website focused on covering state public health policy, penned this editorial over the weekend about the increasing difficult time reporters are having in getting questions answered by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hoban recounted how she and her staff, since reporting what Hoban called unflattering news in May about DHHS, have been stonewalled by the agency’s public affairs staff. The news group has resorted to public records requests in order to get information from the public agency.

From Hoban’s piece, published Sunday in the (Raleigh) News & Observer:

[T]he closing of the lines of communication between DHHS and reporters in the past six months has been troubling. Ricky Diaz, the lead press officer at DHHS, has been quoted in many stories about issues in his department, but many reporters have increasingly voiced concern about the increased time it takes to get responses to requests for information – if they get a response at all. And while Diaz may be quoted, there have been few opportunities for exchanges between Secretary of DHHS Aldona Wos and other leaders in the department.

Recently, the N&O reported that one of its reporters was blocked by “a bodyguard” in an attempt to ask Wos a question. And departmental employees were told to call police if activists who were bringing petitions to the Dix campus – where DHHS offices are located – stopped any employees or entered any of the department’s public buildings.

At NC Health News, we have had most media requests denied or unanswered since we ran a story in May that painted Wos in an unflattering light. We have resorted to making most requests in the form of open records requests with legal language that essentially compels the department to answer or face the prospect of litigation.

You can read Hoban’s editorial in its entirety here, where she talks about the risk to public health that broken communication lines can cause.

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Public records in the North Carolina offer a chance to peer into the depths of state government, and see what is and what isn’t working.

It’s what I use daily in the work I do here as an investigative reporter at N.C. Policy Watch. Access to public records have proven instrumental in reporting pieces I’ve done about the (now former) state legislator who benefitted substantially from a federally- funded non-profit he ran, a Winston-Salem public charter school that recruited basketball players from around the world and a trip to Florida that an educational reform lobbying group  paid for a group of lawmakers to go on last year.

This week being Sunshine Week, the annual check-in to see how open and transparent governments are, I thought it a good a time as any to wax poetic about the virtues of transparency.

My favorite line in the N.C. public records law? (And, yes, I’ve read the law enough times to have a favorite.)

This. “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina SunshineWeekgovernment or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”

That means that records, reports, emails and whatever else is forged in the name of public business belong not to the state agency heads, politicians or bureaucrats that create them, but to John Q. Public. As in, you and me.

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An uproar over a Western North Carolina editor’s request for a list of concealed-carry gun permits led to the editor withdrawing his request, and resigning from the weekly mountain paper.

Robert Horne, the editor of the weekly Cherokee Scout since 2005, resigned from his position Tuesday, following the backlash over public records request he made to Cherokee Sheriff Keith Lovin for a list of residents who hold concealed-carry permits. He plans on working through May, and then leaving the state.

Cherokee County is located in the mountainous,  westernmost corner of the state.

Horne has asked for a list of concealed-carry gun permits on Feb. 19, but Lovin denied it and then posted a response from Horne about how the information should be public on the sheriff’s Facebook page, which sparked a deluge of comments critical of the editor, according to this account from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Threats to newspaper staffers and Horne started coming in, with Horne reporting several of the threats to the same sheriff’s office.

(The permits are, despite Lovin’s conclusion, considered public records, though legislation introduced this year seeks to make the information confidential.)

Scout’s publisher, David Brown, issued an apology this week to readers about Horne’s request, calling it a “tremendous error” to ask for the records.  Brown turned down a request for comment, saying the paper’s owners, Community Newspapers Inc., in Georgia, asked him not to talk about the situation.

Both the Columbia Journalism Review and national media commentator Jim Romenesko have been following the story, with their takes on the situation here and here.

From the CJR article:

The Cherokee Scout isn’t the first American newspaper to find itself in the crosshairs for its handling of public information about individual gun owners. In December, The Journal News in White Plains, New York faced a scorching backlash from gun owners after it published names and addresses of residents who had gun permits. The public outcry was so toxic armed guards had to protect the paper’s headquarters.

“After the backlash over the same issue in the state of New York, these idiots should have known what the citizens’ reactions would be,” wrote a commenter, about the Scout, in an online forum for North Carolina gun owners.

And last week, the state legislature in Maine voted to make gun permit data temporarily exempt from the state’s right-to-know law, reacting to the Bangor Daily News’s since-abandoned public records request for information on concealed-weapons permit holders.

The CJR article also makes the point that newspapers in small communities like Cheroke County don’t always have the leverage to take a stand on public records issues, with sheriffs in powerful positions that can make life difficult, or worse, for inquisitive reporters.