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Want to know how much your police chief and school principal are paid? How about a full rundown of your city council’s spending during that out-of-state conference? The information’s yours for the asking.
Do you wonder whether your county commissioners are discussing official business in emails or text messages to each other? If they are, you have a right to see them.
Sunshine Week, the annual awareness campaign for public records and open meetings laws, began Sunday and continues through Saturday. Newspapers and other media outlets often use this time to extol the virtues of open government and the value of their reporting.
But sunshine laws — federal and state statutes requiring government to do its business in the daylight — aren’t just for journalists. They’re for you.
We use these laws to gather information and hold local government accountable. You have the same right and ability. This year, instead of explaining why sunshine laws matter to the press, we want to equip our fellow citizens with the knowledge they need to put these tools to use.
Following are several questions you may be asked or responses you might receive when you request public records or access to government meetings — along with replies you can give to help cut through the red tape.
• “Who are you with? Why do you want to see that?”
The N.C. Public Records Law, General Statute 132-6, provides that “any person” may request records. You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen or a resident of any state, county, city or town. Under G.S. 132-6(b), custodians of public records can’t require you to disclose the motive for your request.
• “That will take 10 hours to copy. You’ll have to pay extra fees for our time.”
Generally, agencies can only charge for the actual cost of copying public records. North Carolina law allows a “special service charge” to copy records that require “extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance.” However, these charges only apply to the production of copies. Under a 2017 settlement in News & Observer Publishing Co. v. McCrory, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration acknowledged that government agencies may not charge fees for the inspection of public records. If you receive an astronomical quote for copies, ask to view the records and photograph them yourself.
• “That’s a personnel matter. It’s confidential.”
While government employees’ personnel records are private, agencies are required to disclose “name, rank and serial number”-type information that includes workers’ current salaries, the date and amount of each salary increase or decrease and the date and type of each promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension or separation. If a public employee is fired for disciplinary reasons, state law requires disclosure of “a copy of the written notice of the final decision of the head of the department setting forth the specific acts or omissions that are the basis of the dismissal.”
• “I can’t release those minutes because the board hasn’t voted to approve them yet.”
Documents like open-session meeting minutes become public record upon their creation. In the N.C. Department of Justice’s “North Carolina Open Government Guide,” Attorney General Josh Stein explains that a draft “does not have to be submitted to the members of a public body or the head of a public agency for approval to be considered a public record.” Clerks can stamp the file “DRAFT” and release it.
• “I don’t have to show you texts sent on my personal cellphone.”
The N.C. Public Records Act applies to any kind of record “regardless of physical form or characteristics” made or received in connection with public business. If government officials don’t wish to release personal email or phone records, they shouldn’t use these email accounts or cellphones for work.
• “It doesn’t matter that the whole board happens to be here. This isn’t a public meeting.”
As long as no official business is being discussed, it’s OK for members of governing bodies to participate in “a social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering together of the members.” There is no state law preventing a quorum of board members from appearing together outside of called meetings. However, even a social function could constitute an open meeting if members are “transacting the public business,” and especially if the gathering was “called or held to evade the spirit and purposes” of state law.