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Panel approves penalty for open records violation

RALEIGH (AP) ó People and media organizations that successfully sue North Carolina governments for public records would be more likely to recover their legal fees under legislation approved Wednesday by a House panel.
The bill, recommended by the House Finance Committee in a voice vote, would reduce a judge’s discretion to deny attorneys fees for news media outlets or individuals.
An “Open Government Unit” operated by the Attorney General’s Office also would be formalized in the legislation to help settle public records and open meeting disputes and issue advisory opinions.
The measure, which now goes to the full House, would improve government transparency and give more teeth to public records laws by increasing the chances that governments will have to pay large legal bills if the laws are violated, according to supporters. The North Carolina Press Association and the state Association of Broadcasters back the legislation.
“The public wants to have access to what is perceived to be public information and it’s part of our duty to make it available,” said Rep. Margaret Dickson, D-Cumberland, one of the bill’s primary sponsors and a retired radio executive. The bill, she added, makes “it clear to the governmental body that freedom of information requests are important.”
Under the current law, judges currently can decline to order state or local governmental bodies to pay attorney fees for the winning side if they determine the government acted with “substantial justification” to deny access. The proposal would lower the threshold for awarding fees.
Committee members deadlocked 13-13 on an amendment that would have allowed city, county or state governments to collect attorney fees should they win in a public records dispute. The vote means the amendment failed, but it could still be presented on the House floor.
Such an amendment would discourage frivolous records lawsuits and help protect taxpayer dollars that have to defend the lawsuits, said Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, the amendment sponsor.
“This amendment will help level the playing field,” said Owens, adding that few areas in state litigation allow only the plaintiff can demand court fees from the opposing party.
But lawmakers who opposed the amendment said it would have a chilling effect on individuals who have a right to demand public records because they could face a hefty legal tab. Local and state governments have money to fight these requests, said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell.
“Since when has fighting City Hall been called a level-playing field?” Starnes asked.
City and county lobbying groups argue the lower threshold for paying the plaintiffs’ attorney fees could delay further the release of documents.
County commissions and town councils could no longer rely on their attorneys’ advice on open records questions for a defense from paying the plaintiffs’ legal fees in a lawsuit.
Instead, they would have to ask for a written document from the Attorney General’s Office, which could lead to more delay in responding to records requests, said Paul Meyer with the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
Meyer said the league doesn’t have a problem with the Open Government Unit, which would be an optional resource for local governments and could assist private entities as well.
A lobbyist for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners suggested to the committee last week that the unit could get bogged down in handling requests from the more than 1,500 state and local government agencies.

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