Recent Blog Posts

  • When an Employee Wants to Record a Meeting with a Supervisor

    Authored by: on Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

    It’s not a meeting that anyone wants.  The public works director is going to have to tell the truck driver that his poor performance is threatening his job.  The city manager is going to tell the police chief that a number of the chief’s management decisions have been unacceptable.  The county finance officer must talk with the payroll clerk about the clerk’s arrest last Saturday night.

    The truck driver, the police chief, and the payroll clerk are all afraid for their jobs, and they are distrustful of the boss.  They ask for permission to record the meeting.

    When an employee of a unit of government in North Carolina asks for such permission, must the supervisor grant it? Read more »

  • N.C. Housing Market Improves But Local Tax Bases Continue to Suffer

    Authored by: on Friday, April 26th, 2013

    Contradictions abound in recent news about the North Carolina real estate market.

    First, the good news: home sales, home prices, and home construction starts are up. 

    The North Carolina Association of Realtors reports that home sales through the end of March rose 22% compared to a year ago.  Prices also increased, up 7% from 2012. Inventory is tight, which is encouraging more new construction both nationally and locally:  home construction across the country is at its highest pace in 5 years, while residential building permits issued in Mecklenburg County have increased more than 300% since 2011 in both number and dollar value.  

    Now, the bad news.  Property tax bases in North Carolina communities are still suffering.  

    For decades, local governments in North Carolina reasonably expected increases of 20% to 35% in their tax bases after reappraisals.  Those expectations evaporated following the Great Recession of 2008.  Since then, numerous counties have suffered drops in their tax bases following reappraisals.  This trend continues in 2013.  Read more »

  • Charging for Copies of Public Records

    Authored by: on Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

    How much can a public agency charge for responding to public records requests?  The statute limits charges to a “minimal amount,” which is defined as the “actual cost of reproducing the public record or public information.” G.S. 132-1(b). A separate statute defines “actual cost” as:  “direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles and does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a public record had not been made.” G.S. 132-6.2(b).

    Several important and commonly accepted interpretations of these provisions are:

  • Charges are limited to a very few kinds of costs — the cost of paper, CD’s, flash drives, or other media in which copies of records are provided, and any postage or shipping charges for mailing.
  • There is probably nothing that can be charged for providing electronic records by email.
  • There is no authority to charge anything when the request is to inspect (rather than receive copies of) public records.
  • There is no general authority to charge for the employee time spent to analyze a public records request, determine what records are responsive to it, search for the records, and redact them as necessary.
  • Since employees are already on the payroll, the time they spend responding to public records requests is an existing cost and is not attributable to the existence of the request.
  • The only authority in the current law to charge for labor is in the case of a request that requires “extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel of the agency…” G.S. 132-6.2(b)
  • The provision in G.S. 132-6.2, which only applies when there is “extensive use” of information technology resources or personnel, is not specific regarding what kinds of tasks can be charged for. The provision has not been interpreted by the courts to date.  Some questions that remain unanswered include, for requests for electronic copies of records, what activities might be considered to be included in “time spent reproducing the record or information?”  Would this include time spent searching for, extracting, and compiling records, or would it be limited to the acts of sending an email or downloading files to an external storage device for delivery.  If the intent of the statute is to pass along only the clerical and administrative costs, then it would make sense then charges should be limited to the searching, downloading, and copying records activities, and not the substantive review and redaction of the content of the records.

    A second question is at what rate the labor should be charged. The statute does not establish a specific rate, providing only that the charge must be “reasonable” and based on the “actual cost” incurred for the information technology resources and labor. States that allow public agencies to charge for the labor in providing public records sometimes limit charges to the hourly rate of the lowest level employee who could perform the work. This protects the requester from having to pay more simply because the unit chooses a higher paid (and perhaps overqualified) employee to do the work.

     

  • An Update on Recent Changes for Local Human Services Agencies

    Authored by: on Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

    In the wake of new legislation enacted in June 2012, several counties have decided to make changes to how they organize and govern their local human services agencies.  Last September, I wrote about this issue and identified three counties that had already made some changes (Montgomery, Buncombe, and Brunswick).  Since that time, five more have made changes and I believe several more transitions are in the works for the coming fiscal year.  I thought I would use this opportunity to offer a quick status update and also identify some of special process considerations that are tied to the revised human services law.  Read more »

  • Text Messages as Public Records

    Authored by: on Monday, April 22nd, 2013

    A city manager sends and receives the following text messages from a city resident on the manager’s personal smartphone:

    Citizen: u and wife want to meet us for dinner at 6 2moro? Manager: same place as last Fri? scallops were delish Citizen: yeah. btw–Y potholes on Jones St. not fixed yet? ruining my car shocks. mayoer promised theyd be fixed 6 mnths ago. As usual LOPSOD Manager:  BMY publ. werks crew painfully slow. will direct to fix asap Citizen: Thx. it’s doog to know peeps in high paces      :-} Manager: had 2 pull rank. crew will get there early next week at latest.. ITMT take Smith st. Citizen: YTM. where/when is next council mtg? Manager:  in 3 weeks. moved 2 library mtg. room. 7pm. CU 2moro

    Are these text messages public records? Do they need to be retained? Are they subject to public access? Read more »

  • What Do You Mean I Can’t Start Up My Business Again?

    Authored by: on Friday, April 19th, 2013

    Rick Grimes is a sheriff’s deputy residing in a crossroads community out in the county.  For a number of years he has supplemented his income with a small business repairing RVs.  He usually has three or four old RVs parked in his back yard where he fixes them on nights and weekends.  A few years ago the county extended zoning to Rick’s community.  His home was placed in a single-family residential zoning district that does not allow commercial uses such as his RV repair operation.  But the county zoning staff told him when zoning was adopted that he could continue his backyard business since he had all required permits and was in operation prior to adoption of the ordinance.

    About eight months ago Rick was seriously injured in the line of duty.  He spent two months in the hospital.  After an additional few months of rehab he was able to return to work.  Given his lack of stamina, however, he put his moonlighting RV repair work aside. 

    Rick is now feeling much better and recently decided to restart his RV repair business.  He mentioned this in passing to the county planner in the courthouse parking lot yesterday as they were leaving work.  She told Rick there might be space to open his business in an abandoned state prison the county had recently acquired and was converting to a small business incubator and start-up industrial park. 

    Rick, his meager savings already depleted by his hospitalization and recovery expenses, thanked her for the tip, but quickly said he preferred to pick up the work in his backyard.  She reminded him that while his neighbors had been very supportive during his recovery, there had been complaints before he got hurt about all the “junk” piled up in his yard.  Some of the neighbors might well not welcome the reappearance of a half-dozen broken-down RVs in his backyard.  She told Rick that re-starting the work at his home might not be allowed under the county zoning. 

    Could it possibly be true that Rick cannot resume his backyard business? Read more »

  • Who Controls the Agenda?

    Authored by: on Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

    The word “agenda” derives from Latin, meaning “things to be done”. For local government boards, it is a tool for organizing and conducting meetings. This blog addresses frequently asked questions about agendas, including how they are developed, how they may be modified, and who, ultimately, has the legal authority to control them.

    Read more »