Editorial: Public Records Belong To You

By / Editorials / Wednesday, 04 March 2015 05:00

Managing Editor

March 15th through the 21st 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!
Open meetings are another Sunshine Week topic. During the Carolina Beach Town Council's February 10th, meeting Council member Sarah Friede said, "We keep circling around this issue of what the town can and cannot do with ROT (Room Occupancy Tax) funds and I know we had an opinion a week or so ago from the county attorney. That may be a closed session issue but is it something we can address in closed session or do we need to put it on the agenda."
The Town attorney responded "Yes" and wanted to go into closed session for " an attorney/client privilege discussion."
While it may seem minor on the surface, according to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, discussions of "Budgeting matters" are not permitted in closed session.
How to spend Room Occupancy Tax revenues is a budget discussion and not one of the permitted reasons for holding a closed session. During that meeting no other reason was given or cited for the closed session. The intent of the Open Meetings Law is to prevent discussions of how to spend tax dollars and even cites "general policy matters" as a prohibited reason for closed door meetings. When talking about a lawsuit or personnel matter, closed door meetings are certainly permissible, just not when discussing how to spend the public's' money. In all matters regarding how tax dollars can or will be spent on behalf of citizens, the curtains should remain open to let the sun shine in; to keep the public's business as transparent as possible. I'm sure our local elected leaders and Town attorney had no ill intent. They're outstanding people. Just remember, no budgetary talk in closed session :-)


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