Editorial: PUBLIC RECORDS BELONG TO YOU

By / Editorials / Wednesday, 08 February 2017 05:00

By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
Managing Editor

March 12th through the 18th, 2017 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. You are entitled to know their salary, position, dates of hire, promotion, demotion and termination.
Emails are public record so long as they do not deal with personnel or an active police investigation as well as some other limited circumstances. Local governments either provide an email terminal or they can easily copy them to CD or a USB jump drive. Just because an official says a document is a "draft" doesn't mean you can't obtain a copy. The law doesn't identify that as a reason to keep a document secret. Most of the time obtaining public records is not complicated. Remember, you're the public, those records belong to you!

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