'Public scrutiny protects people': NC open gov group hosts Sunshine Day event

Posted March 16, 2015

— The North Carolina Open Government Coalition hosted its annual Sunshine Day event Monday in Durham to bring awareness to public records and open meetings laws in the state.

Sunshine Center, Sunshine Day Sunshine Week coverage

State Attorney General Roy Cooper served as the keynote speaker and urged government officials to be more transparent.

Cooper, a likely candidate for governor in 2016, did not mention Gov. Pat McCrory by name but criticized the governor and general assembly, saying North Carolina's tradition of open government "is in danger of becoming a thing of the past."

"If a provision of the law is questionable or open to interpretation, you should err on the side of openness," he said. "Simply put, the light of public scrutiny protects people."

During his speech, the North Carolina Republican Party sent a news release to the media, announcing that it had filed a public records request with Cooper’s office for documents, emails, texts, opinions and other correspondences relating to his 14 years as attorney general.

"This request comes as the NCGOP celebrates sunshine week by shining a light on the hypocrisy of Roy Cooper, a potential Democrat candidate for governor, and liberal attack groups in North Carolina," the NCGOP said in a statement.

Agencies charging for 'extensive requests'

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Monday's event in Durham brought together journalists, government officials and open government advocates.

The day-long event at the Durham Convention Center included a morning public records training program featuring Greensboro communications staff discussing their Public Information Request Tracking system and News & Record database editor Margaret Moffett on her struggles of getting public records from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

N.C. Open Government Coalition Director Jonathan Jones spoke about the increase in charges being appended to public records requests.

"If I want to come in an inspect a document, I should be able to do that free of charge," he said. "Some agencies are charging for this."

Jones said some agencies are now using an allowance in the law, called a special service charge, to charge for extensive requests, but what qualifies as an extensive request is not detailed in the law.

"It was not used frequently until about two years ago when we started seeing a significant increase (in requests) for email records," Jones said.

One agency defined extensive requests as those taking 30 minutes or longer to compile, Jones said. "I don't think that's what the general assembly meant," he said, adding that it's left up to interpretation. Other agencies define extensive as any request taking two hours or more.

Should police body camera videos be public record?

An afternoon panel session at Monday's event focused on the use of police body cameras and whether that video should be a matter of public record.

ACLU of North Carolina legal director Christopher Brook said it's important to strike the right balance of public disclosure while also realizing that people captured on camera might be having one of the worst days of their life.

If police enter a private space, such as someone's home for example, Brook says the people captured on camera should be able to get copies of that video but the general public should not.

He says body cameras can protect police against allegations of misconduct and protect the public against police who use too much force. The camera can also serve as a reminder to people to watch their behavior.

"We all probably behave a little bit better on both sides of the camera if we know that our actions are being recorded," Brook said.

A recent Elon University poll found that nine out of 10 people in North Carolina support the idea of police officers wearing body cameras while on duty, and nearly two-thirds of residents believe footage from the devices should be made available to the public.

Although there was near-unanimous agreement about the concept of police body cameras, the release of that footage varied along ideological and racial lines.

Though 91 percent of respondents say they support on-duty police officers wearing body cameras, only 63 percent believe footage should be made public.

Political persuasion may sway attitudes about the public release of videos, as 70 percent of Democrats favor such transparency, while only 48 percent of Republicans feel the same.

There's also a divide along racial lines. Among African-American respondents, 78 percent said videos should be made available to the public compared with 58 percent of whites.

Frayda Bluestein, a professor at the UNC School of Government, said she would advocate for more clarity in the law.

"The technology will create a huge number of records," she said, adding that videos are not searchable by keywords. "It's not going to be as easy as searching a database or a server."

Attorney Hugh Stevens, a partner at Stevens, Martin, Vaughn & Tadych, called for consistency in how police body cameras are used and suggested that it should not be left up to "the whim of the individual police officer."


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