North Carolina

$15,000? $70,000? Free? NC town and newspaper spar over cost of public records.

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When The Wake Weekly requested public records from the town of Youngsville pertaining to recent personnel changes at the police department, the newspaper’s staff was shocked when the town asked for $70,000 to provide them.

The request, made earlier this month, dropped dramatically on Friday — to an estimate of $15,000.

But the situation between the newspaper and the Franklin County town has spurred debate about public records and who should bear the cost to produce them.

It’s highly unusual for a media organization or a citizen to be given such a large tab for this kind of request, public records law experts say, and the amount is well beyond what the small paper says it can pay. The Wake Weekly Editor Logan Martinez said the new $15,000 estimate from the town of 1,300 people remains unreasonable, too.

Shawn Taylor, a reporter at the Wake Forest-based newspaper, asked for correspondence earlier this month that might shed light about why Youngsville’s police chief retired and an administrative employee at the police department was fired.

The request for Town Administrator Phil Cordeiro’s emails and text messages involving the former employees over a two-month period drew an estimate of $70,000 for records production and legal review.

“We were all pretty astounded,” said Taylor, a reporter for the 5,000-circulation newspaper.

Experts say Cordeiro and town attorney Edward Bartholomew may have overstated how much it would cost to produce the records and misapplied the public records law in determining how much the town can charge. After The Wake Weekly published a front-page article about the records battle, Cordeiro provided a new estimate in the $15,000 range.

Cordeiro said in an interview with The News & Observer that he supports open government and the role of the press. But the newspaper’s request was broad and would capture records that aren’t public, he said, such as employees’ medical information. As a result, he said processing it would require substantial time and technical expertise to identify all the records and review them so nonpublic information could be withheld.

“I still want to provide the records to The Wake Weekly,” Cordeiro said. “The question is who should bear the cost?”

The public records law doesn’t allow public agencies to charge for the cost of separating nonpublic information from public records.

Personnel matters

The request centers on personnel matters. That’s an area of state and local government in which the law gives public entities some leeway in what they can withhold. While they need to make basic information public, such as an employee’s position and salary, there are limits on disclosing employee performance.

Cordeiro told Taylor there was nothing unusual about police chief Daren Kirts’ retirement. But Cordeiro said he could not produce more information about why the administrative employee was fired beyond a dismissal letter that says it was for “unsatisfactory performance.”

The state’s personnel law requires public agencies to produce a letter that identifies the actions or lack of actions that led to an employee’s dismissal. The law also allows public agencies to disclose additional personnel information to show they are acting with integrity. Taylor requested that Cordeiro exercise that option, but he hasn’t.

Cordeiro told The News & Observer he is worried that providing more information about why the administrative employee was fired could open the town to a lawsuit.

His initial record-production estimate to the newspaper was $36,167. A chunk of that cost involved having an information technology company do much of the record search. But then Bartholomew, the town’s attorney, said if the paper wanted him to expedite his legal review of the records, it would cost as much as an additional $34,000. He would charge the paper $300 an hour to expedite the request, more than twice the $125 hourly rate he charges the town.

Bartholomew said in an email message Friday evening that he was out of the office and unable to comment until Monday.

Mike Tadych, a lawyer specializing in public records matters, said judging by the newspaper’s report, the town was needlessly complicating the records search. Cordeiro should be able to quickly search his own email to identify the necessary records, and it shouldn’t take as long to review them as he estimated, Tadych said.

“You guys make public records requests of far greater breadth, and nobody bats an eye,” Tadych said of The N&O, which is a client of Tadych’s firm.

He and Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University, said the town shouldn’t be charging for a legal review, either.

Martinez said the newspaper’s next step is to reach out to the town’s elected officials to see if they are standing behind their administrator’s position.

“Regardless if it’s $15,000, $30,000 or $70,000, the fact remains the same — these values are exorbitant and well beyond the capacity that we, or really any other small-town newspaper, could reasonably pay,” he said. “These public officials’ emails that pertain to public business belong to the people and to expect us to pay any of these amounts to access them should alarm the people that call the Youngsville community home.”

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.