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BOONE — When it comes to seeking government documents, Deborah Greene, a seasoned Watauga County political activist, isn’t the sort of person to take no for an answer. That’s one of the reasons she’s become one of WNC’s most prolific and successful requesters of public records.
“You have to be persistent to get the records you want,” she advised in a recent interview. “You have to be continually following up.”
For Greene, who owns a retirement-consulting business, pressing for public records is a volunteer effort. But she’s long had a bug for advancing government transparency, and when it comes to closed meetings of public officials, in particular, she’s a determined watchdog.
Through her own efforts, Greene has become familiar with the intricacies of North Carolina’s public records and public meetings laws. Those statutes allow elected officials to meet in closed sessions, away from immediate public scrutiny, for reasons ranging from personnel matters to economic incentives for corporations to getting legal advice from attorneys.
The same laws also allow for the eventual release of the minutes of such closed sessions, provided that doing so won’t “frustrate the purpose of a closed session.”
At the same time, there’s nothing in the law that compels local government bodies to review and release such records. Often, it takes a committed person to request the reviews and releases.
In Watauga County, that person is Greene. Through a series of requests she filed last year, 18 years worth of unsealed closed session minutes from Watauga’s Board of Commissioners were released.
Greene shared the documents, all of which are published below, with Carolina Public Press. The collection includes some 500 pages of records. The public could potentially benefit from scrutinizing the contents.
Last year, CPP investigated the frequency, rationales and records of closed meetings conducted by county boards of commissioners in WNC.
We found that in 2014, Watauga’s board conducted 24 closed sessions: four to discuss personnel matters, five to talk about potential property acquisitions and 15 to review legal matters with attorneys. Watauga’s practices seemed typical: Many counties in WNC convened a similar amount of closed sessions for similar reasons.
The records Greene obtained through her requests expand what we know about the board’s closed meetings to a span of 18 years, including about 500 pages of unsealed records.
Tips on chasing public records
Following CPP’s closed sessions investigation, we conducted a training session on the best methods of obtained records on secret sessions of local government bodies. The basics of that presentation can be read here.
For her part, in an interview last week, Greene offered three key pieces of advice on how to ferret out public records of secret proceedings:
1) Keep pressing for the records, even if you hit roadblocks.
Many of Greene’s requests, she said, have proved to be “a nightmare” and “a battle,” in terms of the process of getting them fulfilled. She has encountered lengthy delays and questionable fees, and in most cases has overcome them by continuing to push for what should be promptly public, at minimal cost, under the law.
2) Be clear and thorough about what you are seeking.
“You have to be specific,” Greene said. “If you ask for an email, be sure to ask for any attachments as well. Because you’re not going to get it if you don’t specify that. If you ask for any official correspondence on a subject, ask for emails, phone record logs, etc.”
On a related note, she advised, it’s best to file specific requests separately as apposed to bundling them in a larger request: “Split it up, because otherwise the officials will hold onto to the whole thing until they get it all in there.”
3) Know the law.
Greene said she is a self-taught records researcher, and that she’s turned to online sources for insight on her rights and how to conduct her inquiries.
“When I first got involved, I pulled the state laws off the Internet and started reading them, the public records laws,” she said.
A guidebook to public records and meetings produced by the state attorney general and the North Carolina Press Association also proved crucial, she added.