At the Sept. 17 regular meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Mountain Xpress shared concerns about new fees for the fulfillment of public record requests. In a unanimous vote, the commission authorized the county’s communications office to assess special charges for requests deemed particularly extensive.
Xpress had planned to offer its perspective before the board’s decision. However, at the start of the meeting, Chair Brownie Newman announced that the board would adhere to its written policy of only allowing public comment on new items at the request of at least two commissioners. The board had ignored that rule and automatically sought comment on all agenda items for at least four months prior to the meeting.
Because no commissioners asked for public comment on the new fees, Xpress spoke during the general public comment period, after the changes had passed. The full transcript of those comments, delivered by county reporter Daniel Walton, is included below.
Chairman Newman and Commissioners,
On behalf of the Mountain Xpress, I would like to register our concern about the new fee schedule for open records requests proposed by Buncombe County’s Communications and Public Relations department. We would like to draw your attention particularly to the special service charge proposed for the “excessive use of information technology resources, clerical time or supervisory assistance.”
While NCGS 132-6.2 gives local governments the authority to charge such fees for providing public records, the statute provides no definition for “excessive.” Xpress has been informed by county staff that the assessment of a special fee “would be determined on a case-by-case basis,” with no specific criteria listed for that determination.
Public interest in the county’s documents has increased in the wake of revelations regarding corruption among former Buncombe officials. Xpress believes that such interest is a sign of a healthy democracy, and we are worried that the potential for county staff to arbitrarily assess a special charge without specific criteria could have a chilling effect on the public’s ability to access information about a local government entity that has repeatedly violated the public’s trust in the past.
We urge that this specific language be tabled until county staff develop quantifiable guidelines for assessing a special service charge. Open records requests promote the county’s goal of transparency, and concrete guidelines will help both citizens and the media shape their requests going forward. Thank you for your consideration of this matter.