RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley has asked Franklin Freeman, his senior assistant for government affairs, to lead a government agency panel that will comprehensively review policies concerning the retention of e-mail messages under the state’s public records law, according to news release from the governor’s office Tuesday.
“Some people use e-mail instead of the telephone and others use e-mail instead of a fax machine. It is important to look at our policies to be sure records that are public are treated as such,” Easley said.
Freeman, a former state Supreme Court Justice and head of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, will head a committee looking at public records procedures and the various agency policies concerning retention of e-mail messages. In 2002, Freeman was given the responsibility to resolve public records disputes between the news media and government.
Freeman will review the use of state-owned e-mail systems as well as electronic text communications on state-owned or leased wireless devices such as Blackberry handheld units. The review committee’s meetings will be open to the public.
Easley asked Freeman to come up with proposals that can be implemented by executive directive or changes in current policy and procedure, according to the release. The panel will make a preliminary report to the governor by May 20.
Easley, who served as state Attorney General during 1993’s major update of the state’s public records law, established the Sunshine Office in the Attorney General’s Office. Easley was elected to attorney general in 1992 and re-elected to a second term in 1996.
The appointment comes a week after Easley and his attorney, Andrew A. Vanore Jr., responded to state press association allegations that his administration violated North Carolina’s public records laws.
Easley and Vanore said the administration did not violate the law when it deleted some e-mail messages and threw away a letter.
John Bussian, a lawyer for the North Carolina Press Association, told The News & Observer of Raleigh the note that Easley threw away is a public record.
The debate began when Debbie Crane, who was fired last week as chief spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the governor's press office had instructed her to delete e-mails to the governor's office. State law says such e-mails are public record.
In addition, Easley said he received – then threw away – a note from Carmen Hooker Odom, the former DHHS secretary. When asked whether a copy was available, Easley replied: "I chunked it."
The debate over public records comes after a recent News & Observer series showed mental health reforms have wasted more than $400 million on unneeded services. The series also said the state's mental hospitals have widespread problems with patient abuse and neglect.