Found this the other day in one of my desk drawers. Before I toss it, thought somebody might like to read it for historical purposes. I doubt many of the Alamance County Commissioners did. At least it doesn’t seem that way.
I sent this to the board in mid-November because of concerns we had at the Times-News about methods the county uses for releasing — or rather not releasing — public records in a timely fashion. To that point the county’s adherence to any law regarding this important function of a free society is specious at best. There also seems to be a prevailing theory that should a reporter or publication write a story the county doesn’t like, well, it dishes out punishment by making access to records tougher to get than free beer at a tent revival.
Since I sent this letter, it seems that some of the county manager’s more bizarre rules have loosened up a tad — but it’s hard to know for sure. I can say this, Larry Sharpe, the chairman of the county board, did not respond in any way whatsoever by phone, letter or e-mail — which seems to be a rather large vacuum where common and professional courtesy usually might reside. The only board member I heard from was Tim Sutton who called to say he had seen the letter and supported our efforts.
As someone who has dedicated more than 20 years to the unfettered release of information from government, I found their lack of interest in this subject disturbing.
Here’s what I wrote to the county government black hole in November.
Alamance County Board of Commissioners
Dear Mr. Sharpe,
For several months the organization I represent, the Burlington Times-News, has had difficulty obtaining public records from county offices. We frequently encounter roadblocks and in some cases information has not been made available in a timely manner.
Most recently on Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, reporter Robert Boyer, at county spokeswoman/personnel director Joyce Graves-Hinton’s request, submitted a written request to Pat Jones, assistant county clerk, for information relating to former fire marshal Jack Murray. That information was not released until another reporter here, Keren Rivas, contacted you on Friday, Nov. 9 to intercede. During this period, the information was given to other news organizations for publication.
In addition, during a July 17, 2007 press conference at the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport, online content editor James Moffat and Boyer handed out written requests seeking all documents related to the Honda Aero negotiations and deal to a number of state and county officials. County Manager/Attorney David Smith received a copy. That request was renewed verbally at least one other time. Pat Jones told Boyer on Nov. 5 that he needed to submit a request in writing again. He resubmitted the request on Nov. 12 and received the documents. In the interim, we received public information about Honda Aero from the North Carolina Commerce Department, city of Burlington and the Burlington-Alamance Airport Authority without any such trouble.
To cap it off, the county manager announced a new policy — and effectively rewrote the state public records law on his own — to require that public records requests be made in writing. According to our attorney John Bussian, “This pattern of conduct, from delaying release of public records to insisting upon a written request to inspect and copy public, violates the Public Records Act.”
“The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information …” according to Chapter 132-1 of the North Carolina General Statutes.
A portion of Chapter 132-9 states: “Any person who is denied access to public records for purposes of inspection and examination, or who is denied copies of public record, may apply to the appropriate division of the General Court of Justice for an order compelling disclosure or copying …”
It is also our belief that this “policy” is selectively enforced and targets the Times-News.
We are asking that the Board of Commissioners reopen the gates to a free flow of public information. It is in the interest of residents, taxpayers, voters and readers our publication that you do so.
cc. Dan Ingle
See what else I find in my desk over the next few days heading in to 2008.