The same public records law governs every government agency and office in the state, but citizens may get very different responses from their government officials.
The News & Observer joined WRAL-TV and several other news organizations in a check on the responses of public organizations across the state, sending nearly identical requests for “all travel records” of certain employees. The results showed not just a variety of travel styles but a range of responsiveness, from some agencies’ same-day answers to others’ failure to provide any records before publication.
The city of Raleigh was among the quickest, responding within hours with spending totals and locations for the trips of five employees. That initial response, however, lacked the receipt-level detail that organizations such as UNC Wilmington provided. (The university’s interim president apparently expensed a $90 bottle of wine, WECT-TV6 reported.)
“We try to do the best job we can to get the responses out initially as fast as we can,” said Mike Williams, assistant director for the city’s public affairs.
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The city’s initial response, drawn from an expense database, “seemed to be what was responsive to the request,” Williams said. “We’re certainly open to any follow-up requests to provide information.”
Williams responded within a day to requests for receipts and other documentation of certain spending.
The slowest responses generally came from state-level offices. Gov. Pat McCrory and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest had provided no records as of Wednesday. Forest’s office told WRAL that his records were at the Department of Public Safety, which also failed to provide them.
A range of responses
McCrory’s office said it overlooked the request for a time, then said the request was pending along with others at the governor’s office. The governor’s office and agencies he oversees have routinely taken months to process some information requests.
Other state agencies responded within two to three weeks, while the state departments of administration and revenue delivered records within 10 days. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s records came in 11 days; Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz’s records came on Wednesday, 37 days after the initial request.
Wake County staff clocked in near the middle of the pack, taking about a month to respond. They provided more comprehensive information for several employees than Raleigh initially did, including agendas and receipts. Like the city, the county did not provide itemized receipts for food purchases, instead showing per diem allowances for employees.
“It could be two weeks, it could be six weeks. You kind of hit the average,” said Sarah Williamson-Baker, interim communications director, stressing that her staff tries to get everything the first time.
“The biggest factor for us is our capacity, what other requests are going in, and what other requests are ahead. We do multiple ones at the same time, and we only have a certain amount of time we can devote.”
What did the records show?
Government employees aren’t so different from their colleagues in business: They go to lots of conferences, too, crisscrossing the country in search of professional betterment.
Sometimes those conferences come with costly hotel stays. Raleigh sent John Carman, then the public utilities director, to Washington, D.C., at a cost of $392 per night, plus $695 registration and $324 airfare, for the four-night Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies conference on water policy last year.
The conference hotel – The Liaison Capitol Hill, a block north of the U.S. Capitol – has one of the cheaper rates in the downtown D.C. area.
Carman’s total bill for the conference was about $2,900. He also attended AMWA’s executive management conference in Los Angeles at a cost of $2,536 ($225 per night for the hotel) later in 2014.
Sometimes the greatest cost of a conference is getting there. Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown took an $1,150 flight to Minneapolis for a law-enforcement conference last April. Deck-Brown flew economy, and her travel expenses were to be reimbursed by a U.S. Department of Justice grant, according to city records; the flight was booked less than two weeks before the event.
The new police chief also traveled in 2014 to San Francisco for a Major Cities Chiefs Police Association meeting (free registration, $1,809 total); to Chicago for a Police Executive Research Forum ($1,208 total); to Orlando for another conference ($1,985); and to Washington, D.C. for another meeting ($633).
In all, The News & Observer requested travel records for 10 employees of the county and the city. Sheriff Donnie Harrison apparently took the prize for cheapest traveler, coming in at $0 in reported reimbursed travel and business expenses.
Harrison conducts nearly all of his business inside county lines, he said.
“Most times, if I go somewhere I pay for it myself,” said Harrison, who is elected. “Very seldom do I go, and if I go I just pay myself.”
He does not pay for trips or business expenses with campaign contributions, he said.
In some cases, extra-governmental organizations make a trip happen. Raleigh Economic Development Director James Sauls spent a nine-night trip promoting the city at South by Southwest, a bonanza of tech, business and music in Austin. His only costs to the city were a per diem of between $34.50 and $46 per day.
The Chamber of Commerce funded the rest of Sauls’ trip. The chamber, a nonprofit, received about 21 percent of its revenues from government grants, according to its 2013 financial report. Sauls was at the conference again this week; he wasn’t immediately available for comment on Wednesday. Kelly Hinchcliffe and Tyler Dukes of WRAL-TV contributed.
About the project
In an effort to test response rates to public records requests by government entities across the North Carolina, six news organizations across the state worked together to request travel records from state and local agencies. The idea was to gather and share the responses in time for news reports timed for Sunshine Week, when journalists and others who value freedom of information work to show the importance of open government.
The six news organizations – WRAL-TV, The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, The Fayetteville Observer, Time Warner Cable News and WECT-TV – used similar methods in asking for records and tracking the requests.
All records received in connection with the project, as well as a spreadsheet tracking response times and details, were shared among news organizations.
As promptly as possible
State law requires public officials to provide public records “as promptly as possible.” But some requests stretch out for far more than a year. This week, The N&O received records it requested from the state Department of Health and Human Services 18 months ago. Delays often result in the release of information long after the news events that prompted the request. A quick look back:
January 2013: Amid fanfare, Gov. Pat McCrory hires Carol Steckel to reform the state’s $13 billion Medicaid program.
September 2013: Steckel resigns; N&O files public records request for Steckel’s email.
April 2014: After repeated requests from N&O, McCrory administration lawyer Kevin Howell says no work has begun on request.
May 2014: McCrory administration releases first batch of Steckel email; mostly bulk email and newsletters.
March 2015: McCrory administration releases seventh batch of Steckel email.