ENCToday.com: Adding bite to N.C. public record laws

From ENCToday.com (3/21/09): An area legislator is looking to add a little bite to North Carolina's public records law.

Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, last week introduced two bills that would increase the risk taken by officials who withhold public records.

“We have a perfectly good open records law, but there’s no teeth in it,” said Cleveland, a three-term House member from Jacksonville.

The legislation came as organizations across the state observed Sunshine Week to promote the public’s right to know and make government more transparent.

One bill filed by Cleveland would make it a misdemeanor for a custodian of public records not to allow them to be inspected, examined or copied. A person failing to provide a public record could receive a fine, probation or community service.

Current state law only provides civil remedies for public-records law violations. Cleveland’s proposal would make withholding such information a criminal offense.

Cleveland’s other bill would require judges in a public-records lawsuit to award attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.

The prevailing-party measure is similar to one that Cleveland introduced last session and one that Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, introduced in the Senate last session.

Hoyle’s bill passed the Senate but was never considered by the House.

Todd McGee, a spokesman for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said he expects opposition to Cleveland’s bills.

“It would be kind of harsh to brand someone a criminal when he just may not have known the law,” McGee said. “That would be hard to make it a crime if it truly was a difference of opinion.”

McGee said the organization would also oppose the bill making the awarding of attorney’s fees automatic.

“I haven’t heard of enough complaints that there needs to be a drastic overhaul to begin with,” McGee said.

But Cleveland said both bills contain reasonable solutions.

“If we have someone handling public records who does not understand what public records are, they are not doing their jobs as public officials,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland added that custodians of public records can check with supervisors if they have a question about whether to release documents.

“The individual who’s responsible for producing that record is going to get bitten if they don’t produce the record,” Cleveland said. “They like to be able to hide some things that they do from the public.”

Currently, the law allows judges to award attorney’s fees in public records cases but does not require them to do so.

Cleveland said there have been a number of cases in which plaintiffs have spent thousands of dollars in legal expenses to force their release and judges have not provided appropriate relief.

by Barry Smith, Freedom Raleigh Bureau