A previously hot war over access to public documents in Summerfield has turned into a cold war that appears no closer to resolution after arbitration.
In this case, Don Wendelken, who runs the Summerfield Scoop Facebook news and opinion page, still hasn’t received copies of emails between town officials that he requested last year.
The reason? He refuses to pay nearly $500 that the town wants in order to pull, review and release those documents.
On Friday, Nov. 15 of last year, Wendelken requested an electronic copy of emails between town staff and Town Council for October and the first part of November.
On Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, he got the following message from the town: “The cost estimate for responding to your PRR [public records request] dated 11/15/19 is $487.89. Please advise as to whether you wish to proceed.”
Wendelken did proceed – but not by shelling out the big bucks. Instead, he appealed the matter to the state which, earlier this year, put an arbitrator on the case. However, after working with town officials and with Wendelken, the arbitrator and the two parties couldn’t reach any agreement.
Ten months after the original request, neither side is prepared to budge.
State law generally makes electronic copies of public documents free of charge, but one rarely used provision in the law allows governments to charge for costs incurred in some special cases.
North Carolina law states: “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law. As used herein, ‘minimal cost’ shall mean the actual cost of reproducing the public record or public information.”
The law goes on to state that if, “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,” the government can charge a fee that “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 Mayor BJ Barnes said that Wendelken and some others in Summerfield make sweeping records request that would consume the time of a very busy limited town staff. Barnes said that this “shotgun” approach unfairly burdens the town and Summerfield is perfectly within its legal rights to charge Wendelken the money in this case.
Wendelken said this week that one frustrating thing for him is that the town has been paying an attorney much more in legal fees to fight him than the $487 bill in question. He said that, based on the hourly fee charged by the town attorney, he estimates that the town has already spent at about $2,500 or $3,000 fighting his records request.