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Back You are here: Home Opinion Opinion Section Editorials Editorial: Public Records Belong To You

Editorial: Public Records Belong To You

Managing Editor

March 16th through the 22nd is National Sunshine Week. A week dedicated to promoting dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. We in the media often take this topic for granted and at times treat it as a challenge. Yet public documents are not sacred, they are in fact the property of the public and in most cases (less the federal level) you can get copies of just about any document you can think of and sometimes more with a blanket request. I separated out the federal government because it's a massive machine with the power to bury or deem secret a multitude of records. Not to discourage the public from trying, but don't be surprised when you discover it's often the Super Bowl of public records requests. (Also called Freedom of Information Requests). The media knows the routine when dealing with all levels of government. The public, on the other hand, often does not know the rules and sometimes get discouraged or are intimidated by the mere idea of asking for any document from the "government."
In North Carolina, the law makes the majority of documents open to the public. And by law, no government official can ask you "why" you are making a request for said information. Basically, you can ask for anything that doesn't concern a "personnel matter." That means you can't ask to see an employees personnel file. They won't give it up because the law prohibits the release of that info except under rare circumstances.
You can however determine certain aspects of a person’s employment. You can ask for their title or position, salary or pay rate and last date of promotion, demotion or termination. You can request this for a single employee or all employees; maybe just a single department such as public works or the police department.
You can ask for all emails sent and received by elected officials and employees for a particular time frame. Keep the request narrow so as not to burden the person fulfilling the request. However, it's not hard to supply six months of emails on a CD. But remember, they can charge you for staff time and the CD. Just be sure to ask for accurate accounting of the cost prior to them fulfilling that request so your not surprised by a large bill. If they claim some items may be confidential and it will make it complicated to fulfill the request, just remember the law says that's not your problem. It's their job to separate that information.
The Gazette lobbied for quite some time to convince the Town's of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach to install public email terminals a couple of years ago. Ultimately both Towns did just that and you can pay a visit to Town Hall, sit at a computer and browse through elected leaders and employee emails until you're blue in the face or they start to lock up and go home.
Challenging officials is something that should be done politely. Sometimes they'll say, "It's in draft form" and tell you you'll have to wait. That's entirely false. Any document created in the course of conducting the publics' business is open to public inspection. If they want to write or stamp "draft" on a draft document, that's up to them, but that word alone does not make it a secret until some unknown date.
The Police are a little different. If it's still under investigation, you are not likely to get copies of a report. You can however speak to detectives and sometimes obtain information, but only what they are comfortable talking about.
Most of the time obtaining public records is not complicated. For example, in about an hour on Monday I was able to view plans for the new Fire Department expansion, various emails about funding for dredging the Carolina Beach Inlet, budget documents, discussions about contracts and upcoming festivals, and much more. I just sat down at a computer in the lobby at Carolina Beach Town Hall. It's like checking your own email at home or at work.
Remember, you're the public, those records belong to you!