Public records easy to get?

Published 1:30 am Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill and Clerk to the Board Sharon “Jo Jo” Singleton have a history of quick replies to public-records requests. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

A Washington Daily News investigation revealed the ease – or difficulty – people can have in trying to gain access to public records through government agencies in Beaufort County.

The investigation was part of the newspaper’s Sunshine Week project. Sunshine Week is a national effort promoted by the American Society of News Editors and newspapers from coast to coast.

The weeklong event – March 13 through March 19 – is designed to draw attention to the public’s right to know.

The Daily News sent newsroom staff and volunteers into public buildings around Washington to request information that should be accessible to the public. The newspaper project’s workers made public-records requests during normal business hours.

All information requested by those workers is open under the North Carolina Public Records Law.

Some of the records were complicated and required research.

Other records were simple and should have been provided on request.

Of the six government agencies handed public-records requests under the project, two complied almost right away, two had begun the process of complying and two did not comply, at least not immediately.

To test the public’s ability to gain access to information despite a lack of media affiliation, the Daily News instructed three Sunshine Week volunteers, none of whom are journalists, to identify themselves only as residents of Beaufort County.

North Carolina law does not require people requesting information from government agencies to give their names or the purpose for which they seek that information.


The fastest response – 30 minutes – to a Daily News’ records request was from Beaufort County Schools’ spokeswoman Sarah Hodges.

Hodges provided the annual salary of a high-school principal.

“Any public agency should work with an air of transparency, and we believe we owe it to the community to make all records available under the law in a timely fashion,” said Hodges. “We want the community to feel confident that we will operate by all expectations of laws the state holds for us.”

The slowest response time – seven days – was from the City of Washington.

The records for which the city was asked required time and research to gather, the Daily News was told.

Pete Connet, interim city manager, confirmed city staff had been researching the request, which was related to any city projects worked on by Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson, a surveyor and engineer.

On Tuesday, Connet said city staff had gathered most of the data and was awaiting one final reply from a city department.

The Washington Police Department denied a volunteer’s request to see certain records, portions of which should have been public.

A department staff member told the volunteer that some of the matter in police reports wasn’t public record.

Under the North Carolina Public Records Law, law-enforcement personnel are allowed to redact parts of police records that aren’t considered public.

However, the time, date, location and nature of an alleged violation of the law are considered public under state general statues.

Also considered public are search or arrest warrants, unless sealed by a judge; criminal summons; 911 calls, and public-airways communications among law-enforcement personnel.

A law-enforcement agency can ask for a court order to avoid disclosing information if this disclosure would interfere with prosecution, the right to a fair trial or an ongoing investigation.

It wasn’t clear whether any of these criteria applied to the police reports requested by the Daily News.

Chief Mick Reed agreed the dialogue with his staff member probably was a misunderstanding.

After checking with his records staff, Reed said the staff understood the volunteer was asking for records stretching back over a longer period than just five days.

Either way, the department should hand over public records, the chief asserted.

“What we try to do is take each individual report, redact any information that is either sensitive or is part of the ongoing investigation or whatever rules cover that report,” he said. “We certainly provide access to all of our reports.”

Told the volunteer was asked why she needed the reports, Reed replied, “I would say that was probably a misunderstanding on our part. … The policy is that rather than trying to find what we can’t release our policy is we want to release everything we can.”

The second-fastest complete response č around two hours č to the newspaper’s Sunshine Week inquiries came from Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill.

Spruill was asked for expenses of any county commissioners who attended the National Association of Counties’ 2011 legislative conference.

Spruill broke down the information by commissioner, and supplied the total – $6,142.56 – spent on the board members’ trip to Washington, D.C.

“I think ultimately local governments in North Carolina attempt to make clear to the citizens that they serve that our business is their business,” Spruill commented.

Spruill added that he struggles with exceptions to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law and Public Records Law because he recognizes a need to cite those exceptions as little as possible.

A volunteer who asked staff at the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office for Sheriff Alan Jordan’s annual salary was told the staff on hand didn’t know that salary. The volunteer was referred to the county offices.

Spruill said he’s happy to offer any budget information related to the sheriff’s office, and does so as a matter of routine.

In a brief phone conversation, Harry Meredith, Jordan’s chief deputy, declined to comment for this story. E-mails seeking comment hadn’t received replies as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Another volunteer called Beaufort County Community College asking for a salary number. This inquiry led more to an explanation of policy tied to state law than the information itself, another part of the Sunshine Week test.

The volunteer was handed over to BCCC’s business office, and a staff member in that office consulted the college’s human-resources department for the salary.

David McLawhorn, president of BCCC, said the college has a policy concerning public records and provides those records on request.

McLawhorn directed the Daily News to BCCC’s policy on personnel files. This policy is listed on the college’s website.

The policy notes employee information obtainable under the law is available from the college’s director of human resources, who is the custodian of those records.

“I just believe in that,” McLawhorn said of openness. “We’re a public agency and we have an open door. It’s kind of inbred in us.”

Contributing Writer Betty Mitchell Gray and three volunteers contributed to this story.