Greensboro opens public records, Winston-Salem keeps tight rein

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by Jordan Green

The city of Greensboro gets credit for making its public-records policy more transparent.

Under a new public information request policy unveiled by communications staff last week, the city of Greensboro will not charge for public-information requests and will streamline operations by decentralizing its response system.

The new policies have been developed over the past 13 months and are expected to be presented to city council for consideration on July 15.

Communications Director Donnie Turlington said staff decided against charging fees, in part because they didn’t want to create the impression that they were using them as a deterrent against requests.

“We looked at thresholds and somebody else asked, ‘Is it really fair to charge the person whose request costs $100 to fill more and not charge the person whose request cost 15 cents to fill?’ We kind of got into a back-and-forth and realized it’s far more complicated than it needs to be. We’ve not ever charged anybody for a public-records request, to my knowledge. I think it’s better policy to say we’re not going to charge.”

News & Record reporter Amanda Lehmert raised the question with staff as to whether a policy should be set with regards to fees.

“My concern was could that could be used as punishment for people who were making a request that was kind of a pain in the ass for people,” she said. “And can you just state when it costs us $50, the rest of the cost is yours. I was asking that there be some explanation and there be a threshold set based on how much paper is used, so it was very clear and not just on a case-by-case basis.”

Turlington said the vast majority of public records created by the city since 2000 are electronic, so charges for copies are typically not an issue.

“We’ve got a [public-information request] representative in every department,” Turlington said. “Sometimes a challenge comes up when there’s a question about what’s a public record. You’ve seen the example in the past where everything flowed through the legal department. We’re trying to use legal only to determine questions about what’s a public record.”

In comparison, the city of Winston-Salem charges 6 cents per page for any request exceeding 25 pages. The city recently charged Triad City Beat $43.88 for a request that ran to more than 700 pages.

City Attorney Angela Carmon said the purpose of the practice is exercise stewardship of taxpayer dollars, not to deter public-records requests. She added, “I don’t think 6 cents a page is going to deter anybody.”

The city typically provides public records in hard copy rather than electronically.

“The problem is when you start getting into volume of information, trying to send information electronically is challenging,” she said. “Then you end up having to put it into six seven or eight stacks to transmit. You have transmission issues.”

Burning electronic files onto CDs, as Greensboro does, would be an option, Carmon indicated, but the job would have to be sent over to the marketing and communications department.

“We could try to do that, but I don’t know if it’s going to be very quick,” she said. “You have to get in line like everybody else. It’s not like we have a lot of staff there to do it.”

Public records requests to the city of Winston-Salem are typically funneled through the city attorney’s office.

“When [the request] comes in, it’s provided to the city attorney’s office to review and most of the time to respond to,” Carmon said. “I qualify that to say that if the response is simple like requesting a letter that is clearly a public record, then often we’ll tell them to go ahead and provide it. But usually it’s not just one document.”

Carmon said the city’s practice of funneling public-records requests through her office ensures compliance with the law.

“The last thing anyone wants to do is deliver any personnel information that is not a matter of public record,” she said.

Similar to Greensboro, the city of High Point does not charge for fulfilling public records requests. While City Clerk Lisa Vierling is the first line of approach for the city, any employee may respond to a public records request. The employee providing documents to a requester is responsible for notifying the city clerk.

Vierling said the efficiency of the process in High Point varies according to the nature of the requests and the circumstances of her workday.

“It depends on the level of the request and the turnaround time, when they need it, what’s going on at the time, whether I can stop what I’m doing and work on that,” she said.

The policy under consideration by the city of Greensboro holds that if the city denies a request, staff will automatically cite the appropriate law preventing disclosure in a written response to the requester.

“This is an example of Greensboro setting the bar a little higher than the law requires,” blogger Roch Smith Jr. said. “I appreciate that.”

The overhaul of the city’s public-information policy came about as a result of an inadvertent release of protected information about confidential police informants in a batch of documents provided to Yes Weekly in late 2012. Then-City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order to prevent Yes Weekly from publishing the story about police surveillance of activists by Eric Ginsburg, who now writes for Triad City Beat.

“The genesis of it starts back in January 2013,” Turlington recounted of the policy overhaul. “Some records went out to YES! Weekly that should have been redacted but weren’t. That raised some questions about flaws in the system. At the same time we also got bombarded with records requests. We said, ‘Let’s be ultra-careful,’ while at the same time we were getting more requests. That led to some frustration. We spent a lot of time trying to get our internal process fixed. That’s why we’re here today.”

The city created a new position for a public-records administrator. Sarah Healy, who was hired to fill the position, started working on Jan. 16.

Turlington said the city has improved its efficiency in handling requests for information and is on track to complete 900 requests this year, compared to 405 last year.

The city held a public input session on May 23 to preview the proposed policy changes that was attended by Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Councilman Mike Barber, Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, Jamal Fox, City Manager Jim Westmoreland and interim City Attorney Tom Carruthers. Two bloggers, including Smith and Ben Holder, along with two reporters, also attended the public-input session.

The two bloggers offered distinctly different impressions of the process.

Holder said the city has failed to respond to a public-records request so that he could bid on a city contract.

“The new team failed me, and I pointed it out, and it ain’t like they can’t find me,” he said. “You can tell your ‘new team’ stuff to someone else.”

Westmoreland said he didn’t know who Holder submitted the request to, and had not heard about it, adding: “I do know that we publicly advertised information for vendors that were interested [in the city’s pressure-washing contract].”

Barber and other city leaders praised Holder for his contributions after the blogger walked out on the meeting.

“I would agree that he has identified and helped us out organizationally with some important issues and things that we’ve gotten into,” Westmoreland said.

Vaughan said Holder’s most important contribution has been uncovering deficiencies in the city’s enforcement of its minimum housing code.

“And so I think that he has had a huge impact on the way that we do business,” she said.

Based on prodding from Smith, city leaders said they look at adding an appeal process and review the city of Cary’s policy as a model for emulation before a resolution comes before council.

Smith compared the current administration favorably to a year ago when Robbie Perkins was the mayor and Mujeeb Shah-Khan was the city attorney.

“You have done a phenomenal job,” he said. “Things have greatly improved with Sarah coming on board immensely. I’m looking down the road and hoping that this council — because we’ve got one that’s relatively friendly to public records, with some room for improvement — can put some things in place that will make it difficult for future councils, administrations to backslide so if we get another Robbie Perkins or Mujeeb Shah-Khan, we won’t have an antagonistic situation where there’s a lot of frustration and foot-dragging.”