By Kathleen Sullivan (selcnc.org) and Maia Raposo (waterkeeper.org)
In a major win for transparency, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance on October 5, 2017, announced they have reached a settlement in a dispute with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services about access to public records.
The settlement ensures that the public will no longer be required to pay steep fees to inspect department documents.
The dispute arose when the department attempted to charge Waterkeeper Alliance over $4,000 to review documents related to the agency’s management of animal agricultural operations flooded by major hurricanes. Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, Waterkeeper Alliance filed suit in Wake County Superior Court arguing that the fee was illegal under the NC Public Records Act, which limits fees to requests for copies of public documents.
In the agreement announced today, the department agreed that it will update its Public Records Act policy to stop charging fees for the inspection of public records. In addition, the department will make all the documents Waterkeeper Alliance requested available for inspection at no charge and reimburse Waterkeeper Alliance for the costs of litigation. Finally, the department will donate $2,000 to the Sunshine Center of the NC Open Government Coalition – a nonpartisan group dedicated to ensuring and enhancing the public’s access to government activity, records and meetings.
“North Carolina law is clear that government records are ‘the property of the people’”, said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Kym Hunter. “Requiring the public to pay steep fees to merely review public documents frustrates the ability of our state to function as an informed democracy. We are pleased to see Secretary Troxler catch up with his fellow executive counterparts and adopt a more transparent approach to governance”.
“Until we move industrial agricultural operations out of the floodplain, storms will continue to inundate these facilities, threatening public health and the environment” said Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney and campaign manager Will Hendrick. “North Carolinians should not have to pay the state to learn how our government is preparing for and responding to the threats posed by increasingly frequent and severe storms.”
The department’s new public records policy will now mirror that of the governor and other executive cabinet agencies. This policy was recently announced in a settlement between Governor Cooper and a coalition of media and advocacy groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center. In 2015, the coalition sued Governor McCrory for a myriad of public records violations. Governor Cooper settled the case earlier this year committing, among other things, to no longer assess fees to members of the public wishing to inspect public records.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (including Chapel Hill and Asheville NC), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. See more at www.SouthernEnvironment.org.
Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates around the world, focusing citizen action on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. Waterkeepers patrol and protect over 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. For more information, visit www.waterkeeper.org.