The days are getting shorter, there’s silliness in the air

The calendar may say it’s late summer, but judging by the response from Crossroads Behavioral Healthcare regarding North Carolina Mental Hope’s request for that agency’s board minutes, it’s silly season in Elkin.

Crossroads Executive Director David Swann promptly responded to our late July request for his board’s minutes, detailing the variety of formats with which they could be supplied and the associated costs of each. We agreed to put the request on hold, however, until the Crossroads board considered a policy of posting minutes online at its August meeting.

And the board did OK posting minutes, sort of, with minutes from the August meeting (after they’re approved in September) and subsequent meetings to be posted. Since the Crossroads CFAC minutes are posted online, it would be interesting to know when the board approved posting those minutes and why it didn’t approve posting its own. Of course, that would involve taking a look at past board minutes. One explanation Swann offers in his letter was that the decision had been made “not to archive any of these records in a remote location to ensure that the records would be readily available upon request.” That, whatever it means, certainly explains that.

In an email after the August board meeting, Swann gave  the planned merger next year of Crossroads with Mental Health Partners and Pathways LMEs as one reason for not going back in time, although I miss that logic. And from this advocate’s perspective, the pending demise of an organization is all the more reason for its public records to be as publicly accessible as possible.

Still, Swann said, he would gladly supply minutes of past meetings according to terms outlined in his August 1 letter. And that’s where the real silliness begins for me.

Let’s face it. Copying archived computer files is a simple select, drag and drop operation most first-graders can handle. Then there’s burning a disk, addressing an envelope and putting it in the mail. Or to simplify matters even further, just send us the files as email attachments.

Things are apparently more complicated at Crossroads. While minutes from 1999 to the present are archived digitally, Swann wrote that the “actual cost of extensive information technology resources” and “actual labor cost of the personnel to assemble and save to a disk” would be $121.17.” Part of that cost is to convert the files to PDF format, a step Crossroads feels necessary “to prevent any alterations to the approved minutes.” Even if that step was required, I’m just not seeing extensive resources needed to open a batch of Word files and use the print command to produce PDFs.

Since our request is only for minutes since January 2003, my calculations put the prorated cost at $90.67. And to forego the need for extensive technology resources, the request is for minutes in their native format, which should leave just the cost of a disk and postage at most. And just in case Crossroads uses really expensive disks, I’m fine if they just email the minutes.

While $90.67 might not be much to a lot of advocacy organizations, it is to North Carolina Mental Hope. And even if not, there’s the nagging matter of principles involved.

In reading the state’s Public Records Law, GS 132, it’s readily apparent the intent and spirit of the law is to make it as cheap and easy as possible for the public to obtain public records.

  • A citizen simply has to ask for copies of records. There are no forms, no explanations needed.
  • Cost of copies cannot include “costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce the public record had not been made.” In other words, there’s no justfication to charge for one secretary, one computer and a mouse to copy archived minutes to a disk.
  • Exceptions can be made for extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance. In other words, there’s no justfication to charge for one secretary, one computer and a mouse to copy archived minutes to a disk.
  • If copies of records are requested that include confidential information, the entity, not the individual is required to bear the cost of providing copies with the confidential information blocked or removed.

As I told Swann in my latest response, there are no provisions that allow Crossroads the option to arbitrarily pass along the cost of producing what it sees as unalterable copies, especially since taking a PDF and creating an alterable copy doesn’t require extensive technological resources.

The state’s other LMEs already post minutes online, and it would all seem silly if it weren’t for the seriousness with which the three that don’t seem to be avoiding and/or complicating the simple task of granting a simple request. The obvious question is why.

David Cornwell
Executive Director
North Carolina Mental Hope

Comments

  1. Mr. Cornwall,

    Thank you so much for your work. I do believe the minutes of a government funded entity has to be clearly posted at a setting that is available for all to view. This would include open board meetings with their meeting times advertised ahead. When the reform started, it was from the bottom up. I could be wrong since it has been a long time since I was a CFACS member. Funding is always a concern for persons who have very little.

    Thank you,
    Emma Thorne

    • Buzz Ellis says:

      I certainly understand the frustration you have experienced and expressed. However, I really am impelled to underscore the fact that David Swann responded promptly to your request. That is huge endorsement in and of itself. This is a smart guy that considers every angle and is not at all cavalier in his consideration of the plethora of absurdly conflictual regulatory mandates that change every 15 minutes (the ridiculous build as you plan approach). My experience with Mr. Swann is similar to yours in that he calls back promptly even though my little efforts are just a bucket of sand on vast beach of issues that are faced daily.
      I don’t always get what I think my consumers or my little Mom and Pop operation needs or wants but I get a prompt, well thought out, annotated and researched response. Geez I agree with so much of your postings and commentaries but on this one I got to say be careful of letting the very very good get in the way of the perfect. The man is part of a hugely complicated system that is disfunctional, accusatory, condemnatory, and absurd. He however is simply not any of those…just trying to get things that are stuck to be unstuck…directly and promptly if he hears about it.

      • Buzz …

        Understand your points and they’re well taken. And if a personable style and prompt response were all that was needed, I’d have no qualms. But this isn’t a matter of what my business or clients want or need, but the public’s legal right to know, with open meetings and public documents integral to democracy.

        Yes the system is all the things you say, and from what you say it’s lucky to have Mr. Swann working in it. But ours is such an easy request to comply with that the most direct and prompt way of handling it would be simply to copy the files and send them. It’s not really an issue that has any angles to consider, but seems to be one about which angles can be created. And a prompt response doesn’t mean that things won’t drag on.

        With most of the state’s mental health planning already being done outside the public’s purview, the transparency represented by posting minutes online is miniscule. And I’m glad Cornerstone is joining the 19 other LMEs that already do. I guess I’m not really sure of why they decided not to post past minutes. As a sometimes web designer, I know there’s no “extensive technological resources” required to do it. Nor should there be any extensive technological resources needed to simply copy and send those files.

        My 2.5 cents worth.

        David

  2. Buzz Ellis says:

    Got ya. Love what you are doing. And I got more then qualms…..at the risk of sounding like the news caster from Network.
    I think that giving the “system” credit for planning openly or otherwise is a stretch. The continual course corrections and knee jerk responses to errors in the architecture is diagnostic and verges on the criminal. The people charged with issuing all the edicts out of this small minded kingdom (democracy??? when did we vote for these bureaucratic blowhards?) just want to stay empowered at any cost. This portion of the executive branch is indeed positively Machiavellian and the few conversations I have had with them are infused with either inferences of my lack of understanding of the big picture or direct accusations of lack of empathy for the enormity of their responsibilities.
    Still got to hammer the point that David Swann isn’t simply personable (although his personality is in stark contrast with many at the state level as his personality is by all evidence that I have witnessed not disordered). He cares about service delivery and I wish he would JUST SEND THE MINUTES!!!!
    Stay the course, Buzz

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