According to a recent Elon University poll, only 32 percent of North Carolina residents are aware that the state has Sunshine Laws that allow citizens to access public documents, records and other information.
Residents, journalists and government officials gathered in Durham March 16 for the N.C. Open Government Coalition’s Sunshine Day to discuss transparency in government.
Uner the state’s public records laws, towns must comply with any request by citizens for documents that are used for conducting public government business, including emails, text messages and others.
Exemptions include ongoing criminal investigations, some personnel information – except for dates of hire, fire, promotion, demotion and the reason for firing an employee – legal advice, trade secrets and sensitive public security information.
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Seekers of information do not have to reside in the state or identify themselves, or the reason for requesting the information.
The same Elon University poll revealed that 67 percent of respondents believe citizens should be able to access any document desired from the government. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed believe all government meetings should be open to the public and 69 percent support an amendment to the state constitution to make business of any N.C. government body open and available to the public.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said during the meeting Monday that government officials should err on the side of openness and make records available in a timely manner.
“Access to public information is a real foundation of our freedom,” he said. “North Carolina has a tradition of putting government out in the sunshine. The light of public scrutiny protects people.”
He added that elected officials must accurately complete ethical disclosure forms, and he called charging fees for public records a “shift toward” secrecy in state government.
The public needs to know about “economic ties that could be a conflict of interest,” he said.
Cooper also criticized the growing trend in state government to charge fees for public records requests, saying the practice is “not good customer service.”
Knightdale Public Information Officer Brian Bowman attended Monday’s event in Durham.
“The Legislature changes the state laws from time to time (on public records law), and this is an effective way to keep up with the changes,” he said. “We do our best to comply with the letter and the spirit of the law.”
But town officials have recently declined to release documents related to the termination of one police officer’s employment. Under North Carolina law, a letter is to be written to the employee explaining the reason for the termination. That letter is a public document. When Knightdale fired police officer Nathan Gant, Knightdale’s Human Resources Director Suzanne Yeatts said no such letter was written.
She said the termination was not final because Gant was given an opportunity to appeal. During the appeals process the town negotiated for Gant’s resignation. The town later released a copy of Gant’s resignation letter.
The town has also failed to make public copies of that settlement agreement, which they did when former Planning Director Mike Frangos and former Finance Officer Ren Wiles were fired.
During the Zebulon town retreat last month, town attorney Eric Vernon presented updates on public record laws to the board of commissioners.
“I thought it would be a good idea to have him speak,” said Zebulon Mayor Robert Matheny. “Principally what I was targeting was emails, so (the board) understood even if you’re emailing (government business) on your personal account, it doesn’t mean they’re excluded from public scrutiny.”
He added that board members have been provided town email addresses within the past month to streamline the work process.
“Citizens have a right to access some things,” Matheny said. “We are elected by the people and we serve the people, so they have a right to understand what we’re doing.”
To request information from Knightdale, Wendell or Zebulon, contact the town clerk’s office.