Legislation that would require state and local governments to pay reasonable legal fees when they lose a public records lawsuit cleared a Senate judiciary committee today after an attempt to gut the bill.
State law currently gives the courts limited discretion to not award legal fees to people and businesses who win public records lawsuits if the governmental agency showed substantial justification to deny records. Open government advocates say judges have largely used that discretion to prevent or limit the awarding of legal fees, reports Dan Kane.
"It hasn't operated as people thought it should and it has cost some of the smaller papers in the state a lot of money to protect their rights," said Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat.
State Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, offered an amendment that would have left that standard in place. He said the current law, passed in 2005, had not been given a chance to prove its effectiveness.
"It was negotiated in good faith," Clodfelter said. "What I don't like about the bill is that is going to be thrown out the window."
Representatives of county and municipal governments and public hospitals supported the amendment, while representatives of the N.C. Press Association and N.C. Association of Broadcasters urged its defeat.
A majority of senators voted the amendment down in a voice vote and then gave the legislation a favorable report. It now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.
The legislation, filed by state Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston County Democrat, also creates an open government section within the state Attorney General's office to educate public officials about the state's open records and open meetings laws. The unit would also mediate disputes.