For news reporters, examining public records and inquiring about government activities is a regular part of their trade. But North Carolina’s sunshine laws supporting open government practices are not just for journalists.
“The key is that these are laws for everybody,” said Brooke Barnett, executive director of the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University, in Elon, N.C., which is close to Burlington. “They are for all people looking for information about their government.”
Barnett said that unlike the North Carolina Press Association, which primarily assists journalists, the Sunshine Center’s mission is to educate the general public about its rights.
In addition to hosting workshops and sharing information about people’s rights through their website and other means, the Sunshine Center maintains a telephone hotline at (336) 278-5659 that citizens can call for free advice if they have questions or concerns.
“We handle about 12 unique cases a month of citizens looking for access,” Barnett said. An Elon University school of communications associate professor, she also said citizens contact the Sunshine Center about a variety of open government issues.
“A common request relates to community members who want crime statistics from law enforcement agencies so they can try to do better with neighborhood watch measures,” she said.
Often, people contact the Sunshine Center with questions about access to public meetings of school boards and city and county commissions, Barnett said. Citizens also have made inquiries about whether adequate notice was given for a meeting, whether minutes of the meeting were readily available later and whether a meeting should be closed or open to the public.
Last fall, when the Sunshine Center held an educational workshop in Asheville, she said the hot topic at that session related to access to animal control records.
The Sunshine Center has advised citizens when they have been incorrectly told that the public information or access they seek is for journalists only or for professional and not non-student journalists. The center has also fielded concerns from citizens who have been questioned inappropriately by government officials about what they need the information for.
She said the Sunshine Center has about a 90 percent success rate of solving people’s issues with open government questions. Barnett added that solving an issue sometimes means determining that that person is not entitled to the record or access requested.
The Sunshine Center also works, Barnett said, on helping both government representatives and citizens understand the law and work together better.
As a general assignment reporter and columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, John Boyle’s work regularly involves delving into public records and monitoring government meetings.
In one recent example, public records played a key role in February news reports written by Boyle and his colleagues at the Citizen-Times about Buncombe County commissioners being the state’s highest paid commissioners. The stories led in part to the commissioners cutting their compensation.
Boyle has worked as a journalist for 19 years, with the last 16 of those being at the Citizen-Times. Through the years, he said, government officials’ understanding of and compliance with open records and meetings laws has “probably gotten a little better.”
Overall said he’s seen local law enforcement agencies be more responsive when it comes to sharing public records ranging from police reports to 911 call audio files. According to a Jan. 25 story in The Charlotte Observer, North Carolina and North Dakota are the only two states in the country to consider 911 calls to be public information. That same story reported that the Durham Police Department also has persuaded city and county elected officials to restrict access to the calls “to include only written transcripts or recordings distorted so the caller’s voice can’t be recognized.” The N.C. Association of County Commissioners is lobbying for the effort, too.
But adherence to open records and meetings laws by government officials “does seem to ebb and flow sometimes,” Boyle added, “especially when there’s a change in (an agency’s) personnel.”
For more information on North Carolina’s public records laws:
- Visit the Government Records Branch of North Carolina
- Download your copy of “Guide to Open Government and Public Records,” a publication of the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office and the North Carolina Press Association. [PDF]