Though the office grew between 2009 and 2014 from one full-time employee to about 10, the wait times for records could be anywhere from months to years — causing many journalists to complain that the office was shielding public information.
In response, UNC released a new public records website in October 2014 with the intention of improving transparency — but open government advocates say the website has a silencing effect, confusing cost estimates and lacks full transparency.
The website includes a spreadsheet-style list of recent public records requests made and when the request was filled. Though the site describes what was requested, it does not include the record for others to see.
Journalism professor Ryan Thornburg said UNC deserves credit for the website. He said other than the University of Iowa, he hasn’t seen any other public university use a similar site.
“It’s the best effort of transparency I’ve seen at any university,” he said. “Is it as good as it should be? No, not at all.”
Rick White, a spokesman for UNC, said the University posts the requests it receives in the interest of transparency.
“The number of requests is growing exponentially,” White said. “We wanted to let folks know exactly what was going on — what kind of requests, what kind of information we’re sharing.”
Tyler Dukes, an investigative reporter for WRAL, said the site could discourage people from requesting information.
“This to me seems like an effort to lay bare the requests they’re getting more than it is a way to be transparent with the public,” he said. “In some ways it would discourage people from requesting things if they don’t want their requests to pop up.”
Thornburg said by not providing the record that was sent to the requester online, UNC creates problems for itself.
“It lacks the money saving efficiency that the University could have by putting the fulfilled requests documentation up,” he said. “That’s really important. I’m not clear on why they haven’t put up the documentation yet — it shouldn’t be a technical or cost issue. That’s where you get the transparency issues.”
Stabile said the website might not be able to support the public records’ document sizes.
“In our initial conversations about that, we realized that the volume it would take to maintain is a long-term goal for us,” Stabile said.
Other public agencies, though, have provided public records online. Chapel Hill has posted the mayor and town council members’ emails online in an archive. The archive costs a yearly fee, or $208.85 this year, said Ran Northam, a Town of Chapel Hill spokesman.
The city of Greensboro has a database similar to UNC’s which allows users to click and access records people asked for.
“We needed a way for requesters to view the status of their request — what we really wanted was full transparency,” said Sarah Healy, the public records manager for the city.
Greensboro’s website was created in-house, at no additional cost in July, she said. Since its launch, more than 500 fulfilled requests have been stored on the website. Healy said if a file is too big, the city will provide the record to anyone who requests it.
The section of UNC’s public records website which details cost is also confusing, said Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition. Some numbers seem arbitrary, he said, and identical requests can yield the same costs.
“You see news outlets make the same request,” he said. “They’ll say it takes more than 50 hours, and the next thing it’s the exact thing. There shouldn’t be any additional cost for the same request.”
In January, multiple media outlets, including The Daily Tar Heel, requested UNC’s report to its accrediting agency. The response was more than 200 pages long and detailed the University’s compliance with multiple standards.
UNC’s public records website states that the approximate cost to the University was $7,930 for each media request that was filed.
To assess cost, UNC calculates the total time spent by University personnel to gather the records and the amount of time that Public Records Office staff processes the requests. That is multiplied by an hourly rate of $22, or the average salary of Public Records Office staff other than Stabile.
“We’re not charging here, and we haven’t,” White said. “The idea is to give a relative general idea of the time that goes into various parts of the process.”
In the case of the accreditation response, it took 350 hours to obtain, process and review the records and redact them, White said in an email.
Dukes said the high time and cost figures hint that UNC personnel need to approach public records differently.
“They’re not approaching the generation of these records with the idea that they’re public,” he said. “If it takes you more than 50 hours or one to 10 hours to pull some of this info out, that ... is a fundamental problem.”
By highlighting cost, Thornburg said the public records office frames transparency as a cost-benefit debate.
“Democracy is inefficient and expensive,” he said. “It’s certainly more efficient than a closed system where people aren’t informed and can’t participate.”
In 2015, UNC will spend about $600,000 on public records office staffing, Stabile said.
Stabile said the office is discussing whether to use its ability to charge for records more often. People are rarely asked to pay a fee for records, she said. UNC is allowed to charge for searching, gathering and copying documents. It costs requesters who ask for hard copies 10 cents for black and white pages after the first 50 pages, according to the public records website.
For requests involving extensive technological resources or clerical work, UNC can charge $18 an hour.
“We are prohibited by statute from assessing fees for time spent reviewing records,” she said. “The conversations we have had (about what to charge requesters) are about the fees the statute permits – fees for actual costs and for extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance.”
Dukes said more and more agencies are beginning to charge “special service charges.”
“You absolutely create a chilling effect when you talk about a request costing hundreds of dollars,” he said.
Dan Kane, an investigative reporter with The (Raleigh) News & Observer, said he knows providing records can be costly, but the office could work with reporters to be more efficient.
“When you start sticking service charges on these things, it’s going to dissuade people from filing records requests,” he said. “I think that’s the wrong way to go.”
Rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on public relations to deal with the aftermath of the scandal, UNC could have focused on fulfilling records requests, Kane said.
“Maybe if they spent a little bit more money on getting people to produce those records, we might have been a lot farther down the road on this whole mess.”