New exemptions, change in access to public records proposed in special session

The General Assembly called its fourth special session of the year Wednesday afternoon. A regulatory reform bill filed in the House would create a new exemption for certain information held by the public utility comission, expand two other existing exemptions related to personal information and would significantly change how government agencies can provide access to public records.  A separate bill would exempt photographs of people who have been arrested. A third would exempt certain information about community association managers. 

The North Carolina General Assembly called itself into session Wednesday afternoon for its fourth special session of 2016. Three bills were filed Wednesday evening with potential to affect access to public information.  

A regulatory reform bill, H3, was filed in the House. It would make several changes to the N.C. Public Records Law

First, the bill would create a new exemption for “personally identifiable information” of public utilities customers who contact the staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission seeking help with disputes over rates or services. The names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of people who contact the commission would be exempt. When people make formal complaints to the commission itself, those complaints would remain public. The new exemption would make it difficult for the public to evaluate how well the commission staff handles citizen concerns as well as the service of public utilities. 

Second, the bill expands the definition of “identifying information” collected by the Wildlife Resources Commission and the Marine Fisheries Commission to include email addresses and customer identification numbers. Each commission has individual exemptions under separate statutes that requires it to treat identifying information in the way that the Public Records Law requires other agencies to handle social security numbers and other personal information. 

Finally, the bill would change how agencies are required to provide access to public records and electronic databases. Under existing law, an agency must permit inspection or provide a copy of a record or database upon request, unless it is otherwise exempt. The person making the request has the choice of format, as long as it is one in which the agency is capable of reproducing the record. 

The bill would permit agencies to satisfy their obligation under the Public Records Law by making records and databases accessible online in a format that allows the record or database to be downloaded. The agency would not be required to provide the record or database in any other form or format. The agency could choose to provide the record or database in another format “as a service to the requestor” and would be permitted to “negotiate a reasonable charge for the service.”   

House Bill 18 would remove from the public record photographs taken by law enforcement of people charged with crimes. These pictures, commonly called mug shots, could be released by law enforcement if the person was charged with a felony or if release of the photograph was necessary for public safety. 

Another bill filed in the house, H20, would require community association managers to obtain licenses from the Real Estate Commission. Personal information collected by the commission in making licensing decisions would be exempt, similar to other professional licensing exemptions.