The City of Greensboro recently received a threat of legal action over ignoring a public records request from Amiel Rossabi of Rossabi Law Partners.
It is worth noting that Rossabi followed the North Carolina General Statute 138-6(a) in making his public records request and not the Public Information Request Tracking (PIRT) policy of the City of Greensboro, which circumvents the law.
According to the Greensboro PIRT system, public records requests are to be made to the PIRT administrator. The Rhino Times has for years largely ignored this policy because NCGS 138-6(a) states:
“Every custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person, and shall, as promptly as possible, furnish copies thereof upon payment of any fees as may be prescribed by law. As used herein, “custodian” does not mean an agency that holds the public records of other agencies solely for purposes of storage or safekeeping or solely to provide data processing.”
It is the “custodian” of the records that is required by law to provide them to the public, not the PIRT administrator, who is an employee Public Library Department.
The city PIRT administrator has no legal responsibility to provide anyone with any records. Having the PIRT administrator handle public records request effectively negates legal action by the person requesting the public records, since the request was not made to the custodian of the records in acordance with NCGS 138-6(a).
It also makes the PIRT administrator a fall guy. Since the PIRT administrator is not the custodian of the records, the PIRT administrator is unlikely to have any specific knowledge of whether or not the records being requested actually exist.
In a rare PIRT request made by the Rhino Times, the response was that the “Construction Management and Development Agreement” requested did not exist. However, in its place, a number of documents were provided that included a “Memorandum of Amended and Restated Construction Management and Development Agreement.”
After several emails back and forth, it was established that if a “Memorandum of Amended and Restated Construction Management and Development Agreement” existed, then the original document that was amended and restated had to also exist.
This may seem obvious to you, as it did to me, but it was not obvious to the PIRT administrator who was simply relaying information received from the actual custodian of the public record who, for whatever reason, was refusing to release that record to the public by claiming that it did not exist. This is a tactic often used by the government to hide information from the public, and adding a middleman – the PIRT administrator – who is simply relaying information back and forth makes such an issue more difficult to resolve.
Eventually, the “Construction Management and Development Agreement” that did not exist came into existence and was provided.
The whole Greensboro PIRT system that has been around for over a decade is a convoluted but largely successful attempt by the City of Greensboro to circumvent the North Carolina Public Records Law. The system was created because a previous city manager insisted that before any public records could be released, they had to be reviewed and approved by the city legal department. This policy had resulted in a huge backlog of public records requests and a tremendous amount of unnecessary work for the legal department. The PIRT system was seen as an improvement.
However, if Rossabi had followed the PIRT request procedures, according to City of Greensboro policy, he would not have much of a case in court since he would not have made the request to the custodian of the records but to an employee of the Greensboro Public Library Department who has no legal responsibility to provide records to anybody.
It is long past time for the City of Greensboro to discontinue the PIRT and return to a policy of providing public records to the public in accordance with the North Carolina Public Records Law.