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Local governments opposed to N.C. ‘open government unit’

RALEIGH (AP) ó City and county lobbyists argued Wednesday that a proposal to create a new state office to handle open government disputes and a change in how legal fees are awarded could delay further the release of documents.
The “Open Government Unit” with the Department of Justice would issue advisory opinions about public records questions and attempt to work out public records and open meeting issues without going to court.
The bill, heard but not voted on by the House Finance Committee, also attempts to make it easier for news media outlets and individuals suing in public records lawsuits to collect attorney fees if the documents are released.
Judges currently have discretion to deny the payment if they determine the government body acted with “substantial justification” to deny access.
The proposal would lower the threshold a judge must use to determine if the individual or outlet won the case but list specifically how a court could deny payment of the winner’s legal fees. The government body could rely on another court ruling, or a written document from the attorney general to justify its decision to deny the public records request.
Media attorney Mark Prak said recent public records cases show the need more than ever for assistance in carrying out the law. Several outlets accused then-Gov. Mike Easley’s administration last year of destroying e-mails.
“The fact remains that when we ask for public records, we often don’t get them,” said Prak, representing the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters and the North Carolina Press Association, which support the bill. The language on attorney’s fees, Prak added, is “a better refinement of that issue.”
Towns and cities would be fearful to use the opinion of their attorneys or the University of North Carolina School of Government and would have to ask the Open Government Unit for an opinion, said Paul Meyer with the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
With more than 1,500 state and local government agencies across North Carolina, an opinion could take some time, he said.
“There are a lot more agencies, boards and commissions that are subject to these laws, probably more than people realize,” Jim Blackburn with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners told committee members. “This is a much greater task than you might have been led to believe.”
Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said no one would be required to use the Open Government Unit to resolve disputes. The unit would charge a “reasonable fee” for mediation services.
A vote on the bill, which cleared another House committee, won’t come before next week. It would still have to pass the Senate, which approved a similar measure last year, and clear Gov. Beverly Perdue’s desk to become law.

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