Time for General Assembly official to stop playing games with public records

Time for General Assembly official to stop playing games with public records

It’s been almost three years since state legislative leaders hired longtime conservative politician Paul Coble to run the day-to-day operations of the General Assembly as state Legislative Services Officer. After all that time, you’d think that Coble (who takes home well over $200,000 per year in salary and benefits) would have developed a basic grasp of one of his chief job duties: responding to requests for documents that he’s supposed to share under state public records laws.

Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.

As Policy Watch reporter Melissa Boughton documented last week (“Snail mail responses from legislative operations chief Paul Coble appear to violate state public records law”), Coble has made it a habit to engage in maddening delays in responding to records requests and then to send documents via U.S. mail that he’s supposed to send via e-mail.

As Boughton reported, “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,” she explained, “say the exact same thing, [merely] acknowledging public records requests that were sent to Coble.”

Boughton went on to report that at least two of Coble’s public records responses appear to have violated the state public records law by not providing documents in electronic format. The relevant statute, G.S. §132-6.2, reads as follows:

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.”

Jonathan Jones of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University told Boughton that Coble’s responses were “certainly not in compliance with the law,” make “zero sense” and amount to a “bullying” tactic.

To make matters even more ridiculous, Coble appears to be reserving his dilatory bullying for only certain record requesters. Since her story came out, Boughton has been contacted by lawyers with two different progressive advocacy organizations who described similar experiences with Coble. Meanwhile, other traditional news outlets have recently published stories in which they have made use of information that they obtained electronically from Coble with no apparent difficulty.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that Coble is playing partisan and/or ideological games that amount to a gross violation of his duties as an important and highly compensated public servant.

On one level, this is not terribly surprising. Coble, the nephew of the late conservative icon Jesse Helms, is a fierce right-wing partisan. During his previous brief stints as mayor of Raleigh and as a Wake County commissioner, he regularly championed arch-conservative causes.

What’s more, there are a lot of situations in which partisan or ideologically-motivated behavior is to be expected from public officials – especially those who are elected. Gov. Roy Cooper is a member of the Democratic Party and it is widely understood and accepted that he will favor members of his own party and point of view for various appointments and be inclined to favor legislation sponsored by fellow Democrats. The same is true, of course, for Republican leaders like Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.

For most public servants, however, (be they teachers, law enforcement officers, election judges, tax assessors or environmental engineers) partisan or ideological motivations ought to be complete anathema when it comes to their official duties.

And this clearly must be the case with the state Legislative Services Officer. When Coble was hired back in 2015, the official announcement summarized the job duties as directing “the operations and functions of all nonpartisan legislative staff offices and manages the administrative, facility management, and financial functions for the General Assembly.”

Coble’s job is, in other words, that of a classic bureaucrat and public administrator. His job is to serve the public by running the day-to-day operations of the “the People’s House” (the General Assembly) and to keep the “trains running on time” for everyone – not to advance a partisan or ideological agenda or to play juvenile games of the kind that one might expect from a college fraternity boy or, perhaps, a rogue campaign staffer.

The bottom line: Mr. Coble’s behavior is clearly inappropriate and unlawful and legislative leaders ought to demand immediate change before a state judge is forced to do it for them.