Indian Trail Town Council tabled a plan Tuesday to change its public records policy

abell@charlotteobserver.comNovember 12, 2013 

— The Indian Trail Town Council tabled on Tuesday a plan that would establish more fees for some public records as well as add more restrictions on how records could be viewed.

Several residents had objected to the proposal and Mayor Michael Alvarez had called part of the proposal “extreme.” The board, which has two of five members leaving office next month, voted unanimously to let the next board tackle the issue.

Under the plan, the western Union County town would charge $43 an hour as a special labor fee if records are not available in “pre-printed form” and require extensive use of clerical or IT resources.

The plan would also require a 75 percent deposit of the estimated cost of the records if those costs will exceed $100; allow the town to destroy the records if a person fails to pay the fees, upon 30 days’ notice, while still requiring the person to pay those fees; and make records available for inspection for no more than two hours at a time, unless the town and requester agree to a different time span.

Town Attorney Keith Merritt said the plan took some elements from other cities’ policies, including those of Charlotte and Asheville, to help Indian Trail deal with records requests. He stressed that the town is as responsive as possible to all requests.

Council members said several people have been making requests for hundreds of thousands of emails dating back years. “Anybody in their right mind would believe that this was unbelievably excessive,” council member Darlene Luther said. “It’s not the big, bad council trying to cover up” emails.

Right before the meeting, council member Robert Allen likened such requests to “paper terrorism.”

But Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said there are significant legal problems with the proposal the board eventually tabled. She said such changes as requiring a deposit or limiting the time to inspect public records would violate state law because they are not part of the North Carolina public records act, and no municipality can carve out exceptions to state law.

Martin said the press association also has been trying to get the McCrory administration to back off of a policy of statewide agencies charging an hourly rate for public records requests after 30 minutes of work.

In an interview before the meeting, Alvarez said the $43 charge “seemed extreme.” He said he wanted to hear what the state attorney general thought of the changes as well as learn what other municipalities are doing regarding public records request costs.

During public comments at the start of the meeting, several residents said the taxpayers are the ones who own public documents, not the board.

“I have a growing concern that this council believes Indian Trail only belongs to them,” Kathy Broom said. Another resident, Jerry Morse, added, “It’s wrong to punish all of Indian Trail for the sins of a couple” people making the huge requests.

Regardless of the motives of people making voluminous requests, Alvarez said Indian Trail needs a policy that is consistently applied to everyone.

“It’s not my business what they are looking for,” Alvarez said. “They have the right to information to be open, transparent and available to the public. The question is what is the most cost-effective way” to handle such requests.

He said one option may be for the town to hire a part-time worker who simply handles processing public records request.

The board also may consider how long they need to retain certain records.

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell

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