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Most elected boards respond quickly to records requests

Editor’s note: Today begins Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information and what it means for citizens and the community. This is the first in a series of stories examining access to local elected officials’ travel reports and how much they spend. 

 

 

By Josh Bergeron
josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

When it comes to public records, time is often crucial.

North Carolina law requires local and state government to provide an array of records to the public. Emails, recordings, financial documents, settlement documents in lawsuits and economic development incentives are among the types of information state law defines as a public record. If local governments don’t respond to requests in a timely manner, however, it can negatively affect how much taxpayers know about the governments they fund, according to N.C. Open Government Coalition Director Jonathan Jones.

“If they don’t respond quickly, it can take away the ability of the public to be informed,” Jones said. “The need for the request may have passed.”

Rowan County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds also said response times are important when members of the public request information. He said government as a whole has lost the public’s trust.

“Government as a whole has lost the trust of communities,” Edds said. “Building trust for government is providing knowledge. Information should be provided quickly and completely. That’s the way we begin to rebuild trust.”

For Sunshine Week, which runs from March 13 to 19, The Salisbury Post requested travel records for elected officials in Rowan County. The intent of Sunshine Week, a national initiative, is “to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”

To gauge response times, the Post asked local government agencies in Rowan County to provide elected officials’ travel records for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 fiscal years and a travel policy, if applicable. A majority responded in a week or less. Three local government agencies — Landis, East Spencer, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and Salisbury — took more than a week to respond with requested information.

Depending on the amount of information needed to respond to a request, times may vary, Jones said. However, only Landis spent notably more than other elected groups.

East Spencer took the longest to respond with requested information. The Post made its request on Feb. 15 and received part of the information requested on Feb. 23.

In addition to a formal, emailed letter, East Spencer required a citizen’s information request form be filled out.

The Salisbury Post received a copy of East Spencer’s travel policy on Friday, March 11.

It took the City of Salisbury nearly three weeks to respond to the travel records request, which was made to City Manager Lane Bailey and later forwarded to City Clerk Myra Heard.

On Feb. 26, Heard sent an email stating the City of Salisbury was still working on the request and hoped to have it completed by the following week. She said records had to be collected and organized from different locations by staff members. Some of those staff members were sick, she said.

The Post sent its request to the City of Salisbury on Feb. 15 and received a response on March 4.

The city’s response showed Mayor Karen Alexander, Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell and former Mayor Paul Woodson requested reimbursements for the time period requested. The total amount reimbursed was $3,844.54.

Salisbury City Council members spent nearly the same amount of money on travel as the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, which provided information on March 3, and Rowan County Board of Commissioners, which provided on the same day the request was sent. The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education spent $3,774.39 during the specified period for travel-related expenditures. Rowan County Commissioners spent $3,830.19.

All three amounts pale in comparison to the travel-related expenses from the Landis Town Board, which spent nearly $45,000 during the specified period. It’s larger, still, than the county’s expenses when commissioners’ regular travel stipend — $300 per commissioner, per month — is included.

Similar to the county, some elected officials receive a regular travel allocation as part of their salary.

Granite Quarry Town Board members, for example, are responsible for their own travel expenses, which are considered part of their regular salaries, according to Town Manager Phil Conrad. Within 30 minutes of receiving an email with the Post’s request, Conrad responded. Ten days later, he provided an additional rundown of travel-related expenses of board members and employees. In all, Granite Quarry provided 74 pages of documents to the Post.

A number of small towns in Rowan County with no travel expenses during the specified period — China Grove, Cleveland, Rockwell and Faith — responded to the Post’s request on the same day or within a week. The Town of Spencer paid $75 in travel-related expenses to board members during the specified period and responded within a week.

Jones said most local governments respond to public records requests in an adequate amount of time. Some local governments embrace transparency more than others, he said.

In North Carolina law, there’s no specified time for public records requests to be filled. Instead, the law states records can be “inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person.” The open records law states requests should be filled “as promptly as possible.”

Jones said North Carolina’s open records law is in the “middle of the road” when compared to other states. He cited the large number of exemptions as a negative factor in the open records law.

For example, certain records of criminal investigations and discussions during closed sessions about active legal matters are exempt from the state’s law.

Salisbury Post reporters Amanda Raymond, Rebecca Rider, Shavonne Walker and Mark Wineka contributed to this story. 

• Coming Tuesday – Municipalities
• Coming Thursday – Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education

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