State's public records form crucial civic foundation
Posted March 16, 2014
Updated March 27, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — On any given day, much of the reporting viewers see on WRAL News is made possible by a 12,000-word law buried deep within the state's general statutes.
Contained in that law is North Carolina's definition of public records, an essential component of open government that transparency advocates across the country will celebrate over the next few days during Sunshine Week.
Although there are many exceptions sprinkled throughout state and federal law that protect things like medical patient privacy and details of ongoing criminal investigations, the basic premise is simple: If it's created with tax dollars, it belongs to you.
"Our statute is really quite broad in comparison to some because it creates the assumption that every record is available unless there is a specific statute that exempts it," said Frayda Bluestein, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government who specializes in North Carolina public records law.
This is the first of a multi-part series on open government to coincide with Sunshine Week, March 16 to 22.
Read part two for a closer look at the tensions between the availability of public records and the time and resources it takes government agencies to retrieve them. Check out part three to find out how agencies across the state fare when it comes to wait times for public records.
That assumption helps draw back the curtain on a wide range of government dealings.
"Ideally, the philosophy is that the average citizen might feel more confident in learning about the workings of government that they don't see on TV or in session when that information is available to the public," Bluestein said.
And the public includes the media.
How WRAL uses public records
At WRAL News, public records come into play on almost every beat, whether it's on long-term investigative stories or daily deadlines.
Court records, for example, allow us to explain criminal charges and learn more about the evidence both the defense and prosecution offer up to judges and juries.
Mug shots, created by law enforcement agencies during the booking process, also allow readers to track who's been arrested in their local communities.
WRAL's 5 On Your Side team regularly tracks restaurant inspection ratings and consumer complaint reports, both of which are created when government officials interact with businesses or their customers.
Although records like these can be immensely valuable to readers on their own merit, others help our reporting by providing an important truth test for government officials.
"Part of the process for the media or the general public is that it provides an ability to do a check and an accounting on what the government is doing," Mike Tadych, a Raleigh attorney who regularly represents media outlets such as WRAL News in open government disputes, said.
Public records in action
In the summer of 2013, when members of the so-called "Moral Monday" movement rallied in front of the legislature over a range of issues, Republican leaders from the governor to the state Senate derided them as rabble-rousing outsiders.
But a review of about 1,000 arrest records from those events showed that just wasn't true.
Another investigation of about 4,500 emails from county social services workers showed the state Department of Health and Human Services downplayed widespread technical problems with its new food stamp system. The glitches contributed to a backlog that peaked at 70,000 cases and eventually put about $88 million in federal administrative funding in jeopardy.
In other cases, public records and a detailed analysis of them can spark their own story ideas.
That was the case when a WRAL News reporter obtained and reviewed 115 school superintendent contracts to find they were packed with perks.
Or when the @NCCapitol team followed the trail of donations to from condominium and homeowners association managers last year to a group closely tied to House Republicans as legislation that affected those groups made its way through the General Assembly.
But it isn't always so serious.
In early March, a reporter culled through 6,000 vanity license plates rejected by the state Division of Motor Vehicles to find out what the state considers acceptable. The resulting story featured 100 of our favorite rejects, ranging from the innocuous to the profane.
Right not unique to the media
What's important to remember, Tadych said, is that, in accessing public records, reporters are exercising a right available to the average citizen.
"With respect to access to public records, the media have no greater right of access than the general public," Tadych said. "They may avail themselves of it more, but it's not just something there for the journalists."
On the local level, where Tadych said citizens most often deal with government officials, all kinds of public records can help residents find out more about what's going on in their backyards. That might mean getting information about a change to local zoning ordinances or a proposal to change city rules.
Although he said there's no legal obligation for local officials to answer your questions, it typically helps to let the public agency know what you're looking for as narrowly and clearly as possible.
If copy fees ever pose a problem, Tadych said, the general public is also legally allowed to inspect most records for themselves without taking home a ream of paper.
But Tadych said his most important advice when requesting records is to give officials the benefit of the doubt – at least until proven otherwise.
"It's important that folks make the presumption that the government employee is trying to accommodate them or give them what they're asking for. Just like mom and dad told us, the approach matters," Tadych said.
"Like it or not, a good and cooperative attitude goes a long way toward obtaining public records."