Public records stand is a crucial test of leadership

Published 1:27 am Tuesday, May 27, 2008

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times.)
State law regarding public records is not rocket science. If it involves public business, any document sent or received is public record. But in North Carolina, that concept seems to be elusive.
To review: Earlier this year, stories emerged that the administration of N.C. Governor Mike Easley apparently directed public affairs officers to delete e-mail communiqu/s being sent and received by the governor’s office.
Easley has claimed that’s not the case, but reporters dug up notes indicating it was, prompting Easley to say the notes were being misinterpreted. We’ve addressed the content of the notes before but would reiterate that it’s a stretch to interpret them as anything other than instructions to kill e-mails.
A lawsuit spearheaded by the News &Observer of Raleigh and the Charlotte Observer — joined by a number of other media groups — has taken Easley to task for ‘‘systematic deletion, destruction or concealment’’ of e-mails believed to fit the definition of public records. The governor formed a commission to look at the state’s e-mail policies and offer recommendations. Recommendations from the panel, whose membership ranges from attorneys to state officials to journalists, include a new training program, expanding the time e-mails are stored and random audits of agencies.
The largest fly in the ointment is that the panel didn’t recommend changes to the Easley-initiated policy giving state workers leeway to kill e-mails they consider lacking ‘‘enduring administrative value.’’
Beth Grace of the N.C. Press Association said while the panel offered some wise counsel, they didn’t seem to bar the door to abuse. Without teeth, the new recommendations could be a case of bright new wrapper, same old box.
N.C. Public Records Law defines public records as: ‘‘All documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.’’
Additionally, it states that custodians of public records ‘‘shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person, and shall, as promptly as possible, furnish copies thereof upon payment of any fees as may be prescribed by law.’’
This debate is far from over. Last week, the attorneys for the governor asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit because the media organizations haven’t shown they were denied access to records.
Considering the case is about records that were possibly deleted, that could turn out to be quite a feat. A hearing on the matter could be held next month.
While this affair hasn’t seemed to particularly resonate with the public, it was on the burner in the primary as a trio of GOP gubernatorial hopefuls said the State Bureau of Investigation ought to be looking into the matter.
North Carolina voters should keep a sharp eye on where the hopefuls to succeed Gov. Easley — Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory on the GOP side and Democratic Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue — stand on this issue.
Openness should be a top priority for anyone wanting to be in charge of the public’s business in this state. We hope the voters are paying attention. After all, we’re talking about the records of their business.