You may be familiar with the provision of the Public Records Law that says you get to ask for public records in whatever format you want, so long as they can be provided that way.
Persons requesting copies of public records may elect to obtain them in any and all media in which the public agency is capable of providing them. No request for copies of public records in a particular medium shall be denied on the grounds that the custodian has made or prefers to make the public records available in another medium. The public agency may assess different fees for different media as prescribed by law.
Starting this month, this provision has a footnote. If a North Carolina public agency puts “public records in computer databases” online in a format that allows viewing and printing or downloading the record, the agency doesn’t have to provide copies to any individuals who request those same records. (See statute below.) An individual can still demand to see the records in person.
The statute does not define “public records in computer databases,” but the provision appears in a section of the law that applies to “electronic data-processing and computer databases as public records.” That means public agencies may not be able to use it as a wholesale substitute for providing records (unless they first put them in a database), but it remains to be seen how aggressively agencies will interpret this new license to route public records requests to websites.
This development may not be all bad. Although it will make life harder for individuals who don’t have ready access to the internet or the capability to print out documents, it might serve as an incentive for agencies to post once and be done. This could mean faster and cheaper access to public records. And for those who live far away, it eliminates the need to talk public officials into mailing documents. Some enterprising computer whiz might even create a page that consolidates links to records that get posted across the state. (Hint. Hint.)
If a public official sends you to the internet instead of giving you a record you request, we’d love to hear about it. Send us an email at First@smvt.com.
Text of the new G.S. § 132-6.1(a1) (effective July 1, 2017)
Notwithstanding G.S. 132-6.2(a), a public agency may satisfy the requirement under G.S. 132-6 to provide access to public records in computer databases by making public records in computer databases individually available online in a format that allows a person to view the public record and print or save the public record to obtain a copy. A public agency that provides access to public records under this subsection is not required to provide access to the public records in the computer database in any other way; provided, however, that a public agency that provides access to public records in computer databases shall also allow inspection of any of such public records that the public agency also maintains in a nondigital medium.