Midway through his sophomore year in North Carolina’s executive mansion, Gov. Pat McCrory may be turning over a new leaf.
The GOP governor rebuffed Republican legislative leaders last week, vowing to veto a charter school bill that would make school employees’ names and salaries secret. In an encouraging stand for open government, McCrory said information about workers paid with public money must remain open to the state’s taxpayers.
“We need transparency of salary information for all public schools — both traditional and charter schools,” he said in a statement. “I will veto any attempt to hide the names of charter school employees from the public record and I encourage the General Assembly to pass the legislation without this provision.”
It’s not the first time McCrory has reined in members of his own party, but it may well be the first time since taking office that the governor has done more than pay lip service to the public’s right to know.
McCrory campaigned on a platform of transparency and accountability, but his office slammed the doors on North Carolina residents when it began charging exorbitant fees for some public records requests. The Associated Press has shelled out $54 per hour for copies of McCrory’s emails, and a handful of misguided cities and towns now apply similar surcharges.
The fees take effect when a public records request takes more than 30 minutes to fulfill. They’re designed to reimburse the government agency for the time staffers spend compiling and copying the records.
Attorney General Roy Cooper believes the hefty fees violate the spirit of the North Carolina Public Records Act. He expressed his concern in a Jan. 28 letter to McCrory, which explained — rightly — that the high costs place public documents out of the public’s reach. News organizations like the AP can pay the price, but many working North Carolinians simply cannot.
“The people are poorly served by barriers to obtain information they already own,” Cooper wrote.
Those poorly-served people include Becky Strickland, who paid the town of Middlesex an eye-popping $415 charge for copies of the mayor’s emails in January. The tab for that single records request is more than her monthly mortgage payment.
To our knowledge, McCrory himself has never spoken about the staff-time surcharges. His response to Cooper came in a letter from Bob Stephens. the governor’s chief counsel, whose brusque and dismissive reply restated the position that state law allows the fees.
Loose language in the public records statute leaves some room for interpretation, but we’re convinced that the fees are both unlawful and unconscionable. State and local government employees are paid with our tax dollars and fulfillng public records requests already is a part of their job. North Carolina residents should not be charged twice.
McCrory has vetoed Republican-backed legislation before — most notably, an August 2013 bill that would subject welfare applicants to drug tests. But his line in the sand on Senate Bill 793, the change to charter school policy, appears to mark the first time he’s stood up for public access to public records. Could it signal a sea change in the governor’s mansion?
We hope McCrory shows the strength of character to reconsider his position on public records fees. His office sets the tone for cities and towns throughout the Tar Heel State, and he has the opportunity to effect real, meaningful change.
McCrory is on the public’s side when it comes to accountability for public charter schools. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be a fairweather friend or a true ally of open government.