Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration is seeking feedback on new guidelines for public records requests at state agencies.
While the fact the Cooper’s administration is seeking comments on the draft is not in itself odd the timing is interesting given that Cooper has been facing criticism from the legislature over not fulfilling public record requests to his administration for the legislature, while furnishing those same records for WRAL-TV.
Last week, Senate Rules Chairman Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) called Cooper out for “selectively providing public records” to WRAL-TV and not the legislature.
In a statement Rabon said, “It is outrageous that the Cooper administration was selectively providing public records related to the governor’s pipeline scandal to a single news outlet while refusing to provide the same records to the legislature. The WRAL report proves that Roy Cooper had his hand in the cookie jar and intentionally steered money out of the state treasury and into a personal ‘slush fund’ he could dole out at his whim. This story raises more questions than it answers, and given the Cooper administration has spent weeks dodging simple questions and refusing to comply with the Public Records Act, I am asking Sen. [Phil] Berger and Speaker [Tim] Moore to include Gov. Cooper’s pipeline scandal as an agenda item at the next meeting of the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations.”
The records in question pertain to how the nearly $58 million fund filled by the energy companies building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was created to be placed under Cooper’s control and who that fund would be used for.
Further muddying the waters was the approval of a major water permit for the project announced alongside the fund, which was approved months ahead of schedule, inviting claims of pay-to-play politics from the governor’s office.
The legislature, in a bipartisan vote, re-appropriated those funds to the school districts in the path of the proposed pipeline, but questions remain for legislators about how the fund came to be.
Rabon called for a legislative oversight hearing to get to the bottom of the remaining questions about the negotiations for the fund.
All of this cumulatively makes the timing for Cooper’s administration releasing the proposed rules for fulfilling public records requests odd, the proposed guidelines are dated March 8.
In the draft document the guidelines say “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. Public employees are required to furnish copies “as promptly as possible.” Agencies are not required to provide copies outside of their usual business hours.”
This seems to go against what Rabon believes has played out in regards to the legislature’s records request.
Topping the proposed document is a statement affirming Cooper’s belief that following the law in providing public records is an important part of being in government.
The statement reads, “The policy of the state of North Carolina is to allow public access to the activities of government. Governor Roy Cooper believes following the law in providing access to records and meetings is an important part of the everyday duties of office holders, government employees, as well as appointed and elected members of government boards and commissions.”
The guidelines recommend charging five cents per page for public records produced in a printed format but that the fees should not exceed the actual cost of making the copies.
Under the guidelines there would be no charge for inspecting records or records produced electronically, and per those guidelines agencies are not required to put records into electronic form that are not already in electronic form.
In this Cooper differs from his predecessor Gov. Pat McCrory, who installed a charge for records that took more than 30 minutes of staff time to fulfill, prompting a lawsuit from media organizations.
The policy also recognizes that requests do not have to be made in writing but that asking for the records requests in written form can assure accuracy that the records compiled were those sought by the requester.
The public comment period on the guidelines closes April 9.xxx