With the economy improving, everyone expects to see some prices going up, but many residents in Summerfield are doing a double take – and asking a lot of questions – due to the astronomical prices that citizens are being charged for their public records requests.
Former Guilford County Board of Elections member Don Wendelken, who runs the Summerfield Scoop Facebook page, put in a public records request for emails between town councilmembers and the Northwest Observer, and he had to pay $480 to the town to have that request filled.
Wendelken paid the money but another resident, one who was told by town officials that she would have to pay $1,280 before the town would meet her request, didn’t pay. She therefore did not get the information. Others were also up in arms when they heard that the town wanted hundreds of dollars to meet their requests.
Summerfield is in the middle of several disputes that center around development, a proposed water system, the lost seat of former Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck and some controversial amendments on the November ballot that would change the way the town is managed. With all that controversy, there’s a lot of finger pointing going on, but those who are pointing fingers don’t want to pay an arm and a leg to get public records to back up their accusations.
Wendelken said he felt like the price was unfair but said he wanted the information and that was the only way to get it.
“I was willing to pay it – but I feel like I was forced to pay it,” he said.
He seems to be the exception – others who put in requests and were told it would be a great deal of money decided to pull their requests rather than pay.
State law says that a government in North Carolina can only charge for the actual cost of paper copies of public records – usually less than 3 cents a page – and the government cannot legally charge for staff time of employees.
In the past, Summerfield has followed that directive, but now, with multiple requests – some quite extensive – the town is using a special provision in the records law that allows an additional charge under certain circumstances.
The law states: “Notwithstanding the provisions of this subsection, if the request is such as to require extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel of the agency involved, or if producing the record in the medium requested results in a greater use of information technology resources than that established by the agency for reproduction of the volume of information requested, then the agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplication, a special service charge.”
This is what Summerfield is using to justify the eye-catching bills.
State law adds that the cost of public records “shall be reasonable” and “shall be based on the actual cost incurred for such extensive use of information technology resources or the labor costs of the personnel providing the services, or for a greater use of information technology resources that is actually incurred by the agency or attributable to the agency.”
Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker said that the town’s computer system makes it very difficult to pull out information asked for in the requests. He said the city contracts with an information technology specialist who handles that work. The town asks for an estimate, and that cost is then passed on to the person making the request – who can then choose or not choose to pay the price.
“We have traditionally charged copy costs, but there is a provision in the statute for that,” he said of the additional cost of using the information technology consultant.
He said the process of filling the request can be very time consuming for that contracted IT worker.
“That can be thousands of emails,” Whitaker said. “We have asked him to give us an estimate and we pass that on in the form of a quote and see if they are willing to pay it.”
Whitaker said that even if he or the town attorney has to devote time to the request, those making the requests aren’t asked to pay for that time.
“We’re not charging for attorney time,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker added that he too often reviews documents to see if personal information needs to be redacted, and that is done at no charge.
“I don’t charge for any staff time,” he said.
Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham said Whitaker and Hill are selectively applying the fees to thwart political opposition. Dunham said that some people – who are on Whitaker and Hills side of war in Summerfield – aren’t being charged anything by town staff whereas those who have been critical of staff are essentially being barred from getting information with the barrier of the exorbitant price tags.
State law says that, if someone is charged a fee for public information that the requester believes to be unfair or unreasonable, the requester should contact the state’s chief information officer.