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.
North Carolina Mental Hope