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A lesson from Rowan

Instead of charging by the hour for staff to handle public records requests, Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration could take some lessons from Rowan County. Though county officials are not always quick to share public records, county government does share more documents online than most governmental agencies. Rowan’s “Transparency” page is a powerful and economical tool.
The recent posting of documents related to the Salisbury Mall purchase is a case in point. After fielding a number of requests for the draft contract between the county and the seller, County Clerk Carolyn Barger suggested the material be posted on the county website. The county IT department made quick work of that. If you go to http://www.rowancountync.gov and click on “Transparency,” you can see the Phase I environmental study, the list of renters, the purchase agreement and other documents.
Digitization is clearly the answer to the challenge of fulfilling time-consuming public records requests. The more information people can find online on their own, the less they have to request from staff. Handling public records and fulfilling requests is part of the government’s job, so it shouldn’t charge citizens extra as the McCrory administration is doing. Making records as accessible as possible eases the way for everyone.
Rowan is ahead of most counties in making information accessible online, but sometimes paper copies are still necessary. State law says charges for records should be “free or minimal.” The county invoiced the Post $12.70 for a copy of a 142-page report, some which was in color, and $10 for a thumb drive containing electronic records the news staff requested. That seemed fair.
The biggest challenge may be requests for public officials’ emails — public records which agencies nearly always want to run by their lawyers before turning over. Public records law calls for compliance “as promptly as possible,” but the screening process stretches that out to a long time — sometimes too long, from the requester’s point of view.
After Rowan County completes its due diligence on the $3.45 million mall purchase and commissioners take a final vote on the deal, more records should become available, such as minutes from closed sessions regarding the property. County officials have said they will post those online, too. That’s laudable.
As the mall deal also shows, public documents don’t give citizens the full picture. Documents can’t tell us what officials are discussing among themselves behind the scenes. What’s their interest in pursuing this property? What’s the ultimate goal? But public documents do contain important information that citizens have a right to access as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Anyone who wants to know how to do that should take a look at the Rowan County website.

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