Snail mail responses from legislative operations chief Paul Coble appear to violate state public records law

Snail mail responses from legislative operations chief Paul Coble appear to violate state public records law

Since January 17, Policy Watch has received 10 letters and one package from Paul Coble – each of which could have been (and was asked to be) sent via email. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble appears to be violating the state public records law and is forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for communications with reporters that could be free.

There aren’t any formal policies at the Legislative Services Office (which Coble oversees and that is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the General Assembly) to address communications with reporters or compliance with public records laws, but Coble has informally decided to use the U.S. Postal Service for all of them.

Each letter costs North Carolinians at least 47 cents. Packages with public records responses cost more and can vary based on weight – the most recent one sent to Policy Watch cost $2.26. Those amounts don’t include packaging.

Since January 17, Policy Watch has received 10 letters and one package from Coble – each of which could have been (and was asked to be) sent via email. Six of the letters say the exact same thing, acknowledging public records requests that were sent to Coble.

Coble, a veteran Wake County politician who was hired by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore in 2015 at an annual salary of $185,000, did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story – either electronically or via U.S. mail.

Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble

In two of Coble’s public records responses, he appears to have violated the state Public Records law by not providing documents in electronic format, which is required by North Carolina General Statute §132-6.2.

“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,” it states. “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.”

On January 16, Policy Watch sent Coble a request for “any documentation on responses from state legislators, their aides or other personnel to an email sent to them last week from Wesley Taylor regarding ‘Subsistence and Travel Waivers.’” The request asked for responsive documents to be sent electronically.

Instead, on March 5, after several emails and phone calls, including inquiries from an attorney employed by the North Carolina Justice Center (the parent organization of NC Policy Watch), Coble mailed some paper copies of emails and a thumb drive of one Excel spreadsheet.

“The law is pretty clear,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the NC Open Government Coalition. “Sending [emails] by mail is certainly not in compliance with the law.”

If a document is available electronically, and it is requested electronically, it must be provided in that way.

Jonathan Jones

Jones said that “it makes zero sense” to respond to public records request via snail mail and it creates delay. It should also be noted that Coble’s letters are not certified, which means if lost, they could not be tracked.

“An electronic transfer is simple with minimal cost,” Jones said.

Coble violated the law again this week when he used the Postal Service to mail Policy Watch a website link in response to a request for documentation reflecting the North Carolina General Assembly’s and Legislative Services Office’s public records policies and procedures.

Policy Watch requests every public record response be provided electronically when possible.

Other reporters across the state confirmed about a month ago that they communicate via email with Coble, although that may have recently changed for some.

In light of the disparity in treatment at the time, Policy Watch wrote legislative leaders, Berger and Moore, to request a meeting in hopes of addressing the issue.

“Given this backdrop, Mr. Coble’s refusal to communicate with NC Policy Watch via email constitutes a clear case of unequal and unjust treatment,” the letter states. “What’s more, letters sent via uncertified U.S. Mail create delay, are more likely to get lost and cost taxpayers money. Emails are fast and free.”

The letter continued: “I am writing this letter to you both, Mr. Coble’s employers, as a last resort and in hopes that we can avoid a public battle and/or costly legal action. I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you so we could discuss this situation and how it can be addressed.”

Berger and Moore have not responded to the letter.

In another public records matter, Coble wrote that all public records responses from his office starting this year would include an approximation of cost. Policy Watch requested a breakdown of the cost to fulfill a January request after reading the approximation at the bottom of that response – it was $1,309.

“We use our employees’ hourly base wage, including fringe benefits, and the number of hours it takes to complete the work to come to an approximate cost,” Coble wrote. “Please note that we break down hours into quarters, similar to accounting or law firms.”

Coble’s base hourly rate, according to that response, is $116.12. (Based on a 40 hour work week, this indicates that Coble’s total annual salary and benefits package at present amounts to $241,529.60.)

There is no cost associated with fulfilling public records request, but Coble’s letter says the new approximations are being provided for “transparency purposes only.”

It cost approximately $156.80 of taxpayer funds for him to provide the breakdown of the cost of one public records request.

Jones said approximations of costs of public records are becoming more common, but he described it as somewhat of a “bullying” tactic. He also said that, upon review, such cost estimates often do not end up equating to the actual costs incurred.