Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

By Elizabeth Cook
Public officials sometimes want to tell citizens and journalists more than they do, according to Hope Root, senior assistant attorney for the city of Charlotte.
“We often are caught between a rock and a hard place,” Root said, with privacy laws and public records laws pushing them from both sides.
“It’s not whether the city thinks it should or shouldn’t release” information, she said. Instead, “It’s ‘can we?’ ”
Ross was among the panelists speaking Thursday at a statewide Sunshine Day Conference at the Salisbury Station, sponsored by the N.C. Open Government Coalition.
In some ways, changes in state personnel laws have helped local government, Root said.
For example, aggrieved government employees who turn to the press to tell their stories used to be able to count on state law preventing city officials from commenting on the reasons for dismissal, she said.
Since October of last year, the law has required public agencies to share a copy of the letter of dismissal given a fired employee that specifies the reasons for dismissal. So, in effect, the city no longer has to remain mum.
As attorney Elizabeth Spainhour of Concord explained, the changes also make these items a matter of public record:
• The date and amount of each increase and decrease in pay a public employee has had.
• The date and type of every demotion, promotion or other change in status.
• A general description of the reasons for each promotion.
• The date and type of each dismissal, suspension or other disciplinary action (but not the reason).
Dan Kane, a reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, told of a citizen who sought out information on a Pitt-Greenville airport official’s compensation package and discovered the man made more than the head of Charlotte Douglas Airport in Charlotte, a much larger operation.
“How many of you would have loved to have that story?” he asked.
There is much the public needs to know, he said, and commended the Charlotte Observer for recent reports on the Charlotte Police Department, a firing in the Mecklenburg district attorney’s office and a ploy by the sheriff in Lincoln County, who was giving oral dismissals instead of the letters of dismissal that would have to be shared.
The attorney general’s office has clearly said a letter of dismissal is to be produced, Kane said.
During a panel discussion about access to government records, Cary Town Clerk Sue Rowland said the town spells out open-government values and expectations for employees. It trains them how to field requests for public information — holding special training sessions during Sunshine Week. The town website has a tab labeled “Sunshine” that explains citizens’ rights to information, shares agendas and minutes and other information.
Rowland, who serves on the board of the Open Government Coalition, differed with UNC President Tom Ross, who said public records requests were important but the university’s core mission of education was the top priority.
Access to public records is a top priority for town clerks like her, she said. “That’s not an inconvenience. That is a part of our jobs.”