Department of Environment and Natural Resources

DENR Public Records Policy

.100 Purpose

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has established a policy on access by the public to the Department's public records. This action is in response to the Public Records Act, G.S. 132-1 et seq., and related laws of North Carolina and to the Department's ongoing commitment to serve the people of North Carolina.

.200 Definitions

DENR policy makes a distinction between two types of public record: "Public Information" and "Department Records."
"Public Information" refers to documents, publications, materials and other public records that are prepared for general distribution or that are otherwise generally available. Requests for this type of public record can usually be handled quickly by personal appearance of the requester for inspection, review and copying, by phone conversations or by the mailing or other transmission of existing documents.

.300 Policy

Policy: All Public Records

A. The following shall be observed.
1. Every Custodian of public records shall provide any person with access to any public record, to allow inspection or to provide copies of those records in the custody or possession of the Custodian upon request.
2. This policy does not require the creation of a public record that does not exist.
3. No person requesting access, review or copying of public information or records shall be required to disclose the purpose or motive for the request. However, information volunteered by the requestor may help the Custodian fill the request more efficiently.
4. Responses to requests for public information or records shall be made as promptly as possible.
a. If a request is granted, copies shall be provided as soon as reasonably possible.
b. If a request is denied by the Custodian of the public record(s) involved, the denial shall be accompanied by an explanation. If asked to do so, the Custodian denying the request shall, as promptly as possible, explain the denial in writing. A copy of any written denial shall be sent to the Public Affairs Office.
5. 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 form. Copies of public information or public records shall be provided in the requesting person's media of choice, provided that the department is readily capable of satisfying the request.
6. Certified copies shall be provided upon request and upon payment of appropriate fees.
7. Requests for public records will be satisfied only during the department's usual business hours.
8. No request for a public record shall be denied on the grounds that confidential information is commingled with requested nonconfidential information.
a. It shall be the department's obligation to separate confidential from non-confidential information.
b. The department shall charge no additional sum for separating commingled information.
9. During public inspection and copying of public records or information, the Custodian shall ensure that the public materials are not at risk of being lost, damaged, or destroyed.

B. Policy: Public Information

1. Requests to the Custodian for public information may be made verbally or in writing, including electronic mail.
2. Response by the Custodian to requests for public information may be made verbally or in writing, including electronic mail.
3. The custodian will determine if the request is for "public information" or for "public records".

C. Policy: Department Records

1. Requests to a Custodian for department records must be made in writing, excluding electronic mail. Written requests should be as specific as possible, (database name from the Catalog of Electronic Databases, the name, address, and phone number of the responsible person per the Catalog of Electronic Databases. The requester may volunteer any other elements that better target the request (e.g. geographical location, relevant organization, relevant dates, specific data elements).
2. All responses to requests for Department records should include the disclaimer: "To the best of my knowledge, all non-confidential, requested information in my custody or possession has been provided."
3. Each Custodian will decide the timeframe within which whether to make photocopies or to allow the requestor to make copies, provided the timeframe will be as prompt as possible.

D. Policy: Designation of Custodian

1. The director of each Division or non-divisional office of the Department is the Custodian of public records; however, the Director may designate at least one other employee of the Division to be the Custodian of public information or public records. Typically, the Custodian will be either a person(s) responsible for the Division's public information and/or a person(s) who is immediately responsible for specific databases, known in the Catalog of Electronic Databases as the "data steward."
2. Division Directors shall provide written authorization delegating responsibility to selected custodians in their respective divisions for responding to public records requests. Copies of this authorization shall reside in the director's office and with the database administrator responsible for maintaining the Catalog of Electronic Databases.

E. Policy: Update/Maintenance of Catalog of Electronic Databases

1. The Catalog of Electronic Databases will be updated periodically as new databases are created in the Department or as existing databases are changed.
2. Information about Databases added to the Catalog after June 30, 1996 or for existing databases materially changed (e.g. new fields added) after June 30, 1996 will be added to the Catalogue by the person(s) responsible for adding or updating the database.
3. Required information will include system, organization, responsible persons, data source, table, and field information (see the Catalog for detailed definitions and instructions). This information must be added to the Catalog before the new or updated database becomes operational. This information can be copied to make a code book for the new or updated database.
4. After August 1, 1996, any changes to the Catalog's key word list will be made by the Catalog database administrator. Any changes proposed by database custodians should be sent to the Public Information Officer (PIO) assigned to their division. Divisions without Public Information Officers should send requests to the Office of Public Affairs. Once reviewed, the request will be passed on to the database administrator with a request to include the proposed key word in the Catalog's list of key words.

F. Policy: Tracking Requests for Public Records

1. Each Custodian may maintain a list of requests that will include the name of the relevant databases requested, the individual or organization requesting the information with their address, date of the request, date the request was filled, the custodian's organization (i.e. division, section, branch) and comments.

2. Each quarter, a copy of this list should be sent to the Department's Office of Public Affairs for inclusion in a departmental "requests database." Preferably, this copy will be in electronic form as a standard spreadsheet or database file.

G. Databases to be included in the Catalog of Electronic Databases

The criteria below are designed to be considered by state agencies and local governments in answering the question of whether a particular database must be indexed. These factors are derived from the interpretation of the Public Records Law made by the Division of Archives and History, the agency charged with interpreting the law. These criteria have been reviewed and approved by the Departmental team charged with designating the scope of the Catalog of Electronic Databases.

Under the public records law, a database is "a structured collection of data or documents residing in a database management program or spreadsheet software." It must be noted that,
by law, all databases created or compiled after certain dates are to be indexed; no exceptions are provided.

Moreover, all data compiled by state and local agencies are considered public records. This is true whether these data are open or closed to public inspection and whether or not the particular database is subject to mandatory indexing. Agencies are required to make any non-confidential data available on request.

A. Indexing

Indexing should be required for any database that meets all of the following criteria:

1. It contains data records created or compiled by or on behalf of a state or local agency in North Carolina. Copies of databases owned by private or federal sources are not normally subject to indexing and, indeed, may include copyright restrictions or non-disclosure provisions.
2. The data records exist within the context of a database or spreadsheet program. Individual documents or data files grouped for ease of access do not constitute a database.
3. The database or spreadsheet is of more than immediate value -- it is not temporary. Generally speaking, this includes all databases retained for one year or more for any legal, administrative, fiscal, or historical reason.
4. The database or spreadsheet does not consist entirely of subsets or copies of another database.
5. The database or spreadsheet does not exist solely to increase personal or group productivity within the agency or agency subgroup and does not materially affect the public. For example, an individual staff member's database "address book" normally does not require indexing.
6. The database does not represent an E-mail system, a general facilities or personnel scheduling system, or similar "convenience" system producing records routinely destroyed within a short time after their creation. Note, however, that certain e-mail records of long-term value should be transferred to a paper or microform medium. For the present, the Division of Archives and History will not standardize retention/disposition schedules for e-mail and similar systems.
7. The database or spreadsheet does not remain "in beta" (still under development). However, a database or spreadsheet used by the agency in the regular conduct of business cannot be considered "in beta," regardless of the stage of underlying database software development. Such "beta" databases must be indexed.

Caution is urged in applying this criterion. For example, a "temporary" database created in conjunction with the work of a short-term study commission may hold records critical to the commission's findings and thus have a legal and historical useful life far greater than the active life of the database itself. Similarly, an "ad hoc" database that is reconstituted at intervals of one year or less may actually represent a continuing database series. A spreadsheet, compiled annually, that lists current salary ranges and calculates current fringe benefits represents one simple example of such a series.

B. Index Criteria

A database or spreadsheet should be indexed if it meets any one of the following criteria:

1. Provides primary data supporting the conduct of agency business--serves as the master catalog, file, or inventory listing for agency entities, events, processes, or transactions.
2. Contains legal, administrative, fiscal, or historical records that the agency retains for more than one year.
3. Contains records that would otherwise be recorded on a long-lasting medium, such as microfilm; records that have obvious long-term value or that otherwise merit the expense of microfilm.

The following conditions have no bearing on whether or not a database is subject to indexing:
  • the size and configuration of the computer system on which a database resides; or the
  • number of staff members regularly or occasionally using the database.

  • Given the current absence of approved rules governing the implementation of database indexing, records managers, information resource managers, and general administrators must exercise professional judgment in making certain decisions about that implementation. These decisions should be based on:
    1. a general familiarity with the public records law,
    2. a specific knowledge of statutes and regulations that govern the agency; and
    3. a familiarity with the guidelines contained in this document.
    (Agency legal counsel may be of assistance in these matters.)

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