(story by Kathleen Davis)
For news reporters, examining public records and inquiring about government activities is a regular part of their trade. But North Carolina’s sunshine laws supporting open government practices are not just for journalists.
“The key is that these are laws for everybody,” said Brooke Barnett, executive director of the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University, in Elon, N.C., which is close to Burlington. “They are for all people looking for information about their government.”
Barnett said that unlike the North Carolina Press Association, which primarily assists journalists, the Sunshine Center’s mission is to educate the general public about its rights.
In addition to hosting workshops and sharing information about people’s rights through their website and other means, the Sunshine Center maintains a telephone hotline at (336) 278-5659 that citizens can call for free advice if they have questions or concerns.
Often, people contact the Sunshine Center with questions about access to public meetings of school boards and city and county commissions, Barnett said. Citizens also have made inquiries about whether adequate notice was given for a meeting, whether minutes of the meeting were readily available later and whether a meeting should be closed or open to the public.
Last fall, when the Sunshine Center held an educational workshop in Asheville, she said the hot topic at that session related to access to animal control records.
The Sunshine Center has advised citizens when they have been incorrectly told that the public information or access they seek is for journalists only or for professional and not non-student journalists. The center has also fielded concerns from citizens who have been questioned inappropriately by government officials about what they need the information for.
She said the Sunshine Center has about a 90 percent success rate of solving people’s issues with open government questions. Barnett added that solving an issue sometimes means determining that that person is not entitled to the record or access requested.
As a general assignment reporter and columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, John Boyle’s work regularly involves delving into public records and monitoring government meetings.
In one recent example, public records played a key role in February news reports written by Boyle and his colleagues at the Citizen-Times about Buncombe County commissioners being the state’s highest paid commissioners. The stories led in part to the commissioners cutting their compensation.
Boyle has worked as a journalist for 19 years, with the last 16 of those being at the Citizen-Times. Through the years, he said, government officials’ understanding of and compliance with open records and meetings laws has “probably gotten a little better.”
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