Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare (PBH) has finally honored North Carolina Mental Hope’s request for copies of minutes from its board of director’s meeting, a packet of printouts arriving last Friday. While I have not had time to delve into them, I finally made time this afternoon to respond to an email from Rep. Fred Steen’s office regarding its investigation into PBH’s compliance with the Open Meetings Law. That email, circulated to HHS LOC committee members and others, is repeated below, followed by my response to the conflicting, illogical and at times outlandish defense of PBH.
From Patricia Porter, representing Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan
Dear Mr. Cornwall,
Representative Steen has reviewed your message regarding concerns about your request to PBH for copies of select records and he has asked me to respond on his behalf.
We have investigated the situation thoroughly and found the following; PBH has, in fact, responded to the requirements of the law by inviting you to view the paper copies of the official records (including signed originals of the Board Minutes) and by inviting you to make copies then of any of the documents you would like to take with you. This, of course, would be at the cost they would incur to make such copies.
You have made a number of points about the ease of an alternate plan which would involve a staff member at PBH simply copying electronically maintained records to a disc and sending that information to you. We have discovered the following information which may serve to explain the difficulty with this alternate plan
- 1. PBH kept official records, including official signed Board Meeting Minutes in paper format until 2010
- 2. In 2010, PBH began integrating an electronic content management system into its operations by providing a central, regulation-compliant, searchable database for business records.
- 3. PBH completed this electronic records system change in June 2011. At that time, all official paper documents were shipped to storage.
- 4. When you requested to review and copy these paper documents, they were removed from storage to make them available to you
- 5. The offer by PBH to make these hard copies available to you is consistent with the Attorney General’s guidance on the law. On page 5, paragraph 13 of the Guide to Open Government and Public Records, it is stated ” agencies are not required to put a record into electronic form if that record is not already kept in that medium”.
With respect to the information listed above, we understand that in the interest of openness and willingness to assure that constituents remain fully informed, PBH has copied the records you requested at their expense and have sent these to you. Members of the General Assembly are pleased with this resolution and would encourage you to keep them informed if you have other issues of concern. Do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of additional assistance.
Patricia Porter, PhD, Consultant
and Human Services
North Carolina General Assembly
North Caroilna Mental Hope’s response
Dear Ms. Porter,
First, my last name is “Cornwell,” although “Cornwall” is certainly a common mistake. After reading the legal interpretations and explanations offered regarding PBH’s non-compliance with the state’s Public Records Law, however, it’s clear that mistakes, whether generated by your office or by PBH, are rampant. As you likely know, I received paper printouts of PBH board meetings last Friday, just just shy of four months after making the request.
As for PBH’s compliance with the law, I will again refer to General Statute Chapter 132 as well as the Attorney General’s Guide to Open Government. The apparent interpretation of the law by yourself and PBH is that the documents must first be inspected in person before being copies can be requested. In its guide, the Attorney General’s office clearly states, public agencies must: “Determine if the request is for copies of documents or to inspect documents. The public and news media are entitled to both.” Such requests are common practice and the intent of the law is obvious from reading the entire chapter.
The documented communication I’ve had with PBH shows that twice they insisted on some type of official request that the law makes no provisions for (except in the case of databases). “Some agencies might ask for written requests … but they cannot insist on it.” I informed PBH of this in a July 27 and again seven weeks later on Sept. 13 when I next heard from them, again seeking a written request.
What’s most concerning, however, is the conflicting information and illogical explanation being used to show PBH’s compliance and the cause for the delay.
First, I did not request Certified Copies, which would have been the only reason to have worried about the “official” copies kept offsite. Uncertified copies in electronic format would have been fine.
Apparently part of the delay was because of the offsite storage of “official signed Board Meeting Minutes” that had to be retrieved to make available. Certainly this would seem to violate the provision of the Public Records Law that “All public records should be kept in the buildings in which they are ordinarily used” and be reasonably available for inspection. Regardless, the delay attributed to sending “official” copies is invalid since I received unsigned, and therefore unofficial, copies anyway.
You note that by June 2011, business records had been converted to PBH’s electronic records system. My request was made at the end of July, at a time all should have been converted. In a September 16 email, however, the PBH Communications Manager emailed that “some of the older files were stored offsite” and further that “PBH has no plans to scan copies of files.” So apparently she was unaware that not just some, but all were stored offsite. Or she was unaware that all had been converted to electronic format.
As you mention, the law does not require agencies to put a record into electronic form if they are not already kept in that medium. So, were all PBH business documents except the Board Minutes integrated into the “central regulation-compliant, searchable database for business records?” And since I got unsigned and apparently unofficial minutes …. well, perhaps you can understand my confusion.
As I mentioned, I did receive the minutes about a week ago in as user unfriendly format as likely possible, paper printouts with one meeting following the other, with the beginnings of some meetings printed on the back of other meetings, depending on how they fall. Certainly, that adds a bit of confusion, but by now I recognize that as just a part of PBH’s standard operating procedures. And paper printouts aren’t readily searchable nor easy to share with others who might be interested. Knowing that electronic files of these minutes that would be far more useful exist, however, I’ll apparently need to reinitiate my original request and wait another four months.
It is my sincere hope that members of the General Assembly are not pleased with the resolution of this matter. Certainly they are not so gullible as to think an LME that prides itself on its IT prowess and is the model agency for others to emulate would lack electronic copies of its minutes and have such difficulty providing them. Surely the tortuously illogical scenario laid out here will be seen as the outlandish excuses they are from a public agency doing its best to keep public business out of the public eye.