A Guilford County judge has decided in favor of former Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham, who submitted a very extensive public records request to the town and was told she would need to pay nearly $10,000 to have her request fulfilled.
The State of North Carolina, which has very strong open records laws for state and local government bodies, greatly limits what can be charged for those records – and Guilford County Superior Court Judge Lora Cubbage found with Dunham and ordered the town to fulfill the request.
The town has been the home of a massive fight in recent years over the best course for development in the largely rural spot with a population of about 11,000. Dunham, who’s been an outspoken opponent of various development and water projects under discussion, refused to pay the cost for her request and filed suit against the town to obtain the information. Dunham has over the years leveled multiple accusations against Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker and she requested all of Whitaker’s emails for a two-year period.
At the trial, Whitaker did much of the talking in an attempt to defend the town’s charge.
State law. Reads “ Except as otherwise provided by law, no public agency shall charge a fee for an uncertified copy of a public record that exceeds the actual cost to the public agency of making the copy. For purposes of this subsection, ‘actual cost’ is limited to direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles and does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a public record had not been made.”
It adds that, “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, which 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.”
Dunham said the town’s charge of well over $9,000 was outlandish given state law.
“Their position is that they want to charge for sort time,” Dunham said, “This case has a lot of implications because a lot of municipalities charge too much, so I think this could have a positive effect.”
Dunham had a lot of praise for her legal team that included well-known Attorney Amanda Martin, who, over the years, has been a solid resource for media members attempting to get information through public records requests.
Summerfield Mayor Tim Sessoms said after the decision that Dunham had submitted perhaps 100 or more information requests to the town in a recent one-year period.
He said he thought that, if Judge Cubbage had had a full understanding of Dunham’s history and what a “nuisance” Dunham had been to the town with her requests, the decision would have gone the other way.