One man’s fight for public records, open access

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

On Sept. 17, 2007, Brian Keesee started fighting for what belonged to him and the people of Oak Island—access to public records.

Keesee and his counsel, Colin Tarrant, sent a formal request to the Town of Oak Island to inspect and copy all public records including “notes, correspondence, interoffice and interdepartment memoranda and e-mails that the Town may have pertaining to Brian Keesee, BKK Construction and the SE 58th Street project.”

The request included public documents available in the town’s building inspections and planning departments, the town manager’s office and communications from current and former town council member related to Keesee’s BKK Construction or the SE 58th Street condo project.

When Keesee learned the town destroyed 310 boxes of documents during the same time he made his open records request, he was concerned.

“I wanted to know to know who is accountable for what has happened,” he said. He also wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Keesee is knowledgeable about North Carolina Public Records Law. He knows what the public is entitled to and he can quote parts of General Statute 132.

Keesee may talk like a lawyer—but he’s not. In fact, Keesee has no background in law.

“I graduated from UNC Wilmington with a degree in business administration,” he said. “They don’t teach this stuff in school.”

Keesee’s background is in business and construction. He is developer and owner of BKK Construction, a residential building firm on Oak Island. He began his fight for access to public information by requesting documents relating to one of his firm’s construction projects, Ocean Walk Condos at SE 58th Street, Oak Island.

“I’ve had to educate myself,” he said. “And it hasn’t come inexpensively.”

Keesee says he has learned a lot about public records law through discussions with his attorney.

Throughout the process of filing a public records lawsuit against the town of Oak Island, Keesee says he has also learned a lot about the town’s public records system.

“I never knew that the town didn’t have a proper system in place,” he said. “We’ve come to realize that the town has less of an organized system than the town should really have.”

A year-and-a-half after his initial request, Keesee says he still has not received all of the public records he asked for, and the town has not delivered any e-mails outlined in his original request.

When he made the request, Keesee never expected to become a proponent for open government, much less be nominated as one of The Sunshine Review’s “Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week.”

On Aug. 7, 2008, The Sunshine Review named Keesee the 28th “Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week,” which the Review defines “a citizen who has been mocked, insulted, ignored or otherwise mistreated by public officials because they chose to exercise their right to file requests for public records.”

The Lucy Burns Institute started this award in July 2007 for individuals nationwide who advocated open government by filing open records requests.

Keesee never expected any of this.

“I did not know in making a public request for documents that we would be still arguing about it a year-and-a-half later,” he said.

During the same time Keesee was struggling to get e-mails from the town of Oak Island, a battle was raging in Raleigh over e-mails. Gov. Mike Easley was accused of asking his staff to delete pertinent e-mails—e-mails that were considered public records.

“The whole Governor Easley thing—it was very timely,” Keesee said.

Keesee said the media attention on the governor and e-mails reiterated what he believed all along—the fact that e-mails were public records.

By the time the case goes to trial on June 29, it will have been 19 months since the initial request. Though Keesee will have nearly two years invested in the suit, he’s hopeful some good will from it.

“I hope that the suit will make it easier for other people to request documents and for those requests to be filled fully, in a timely manner,” he said.

Keesee also hopes the town will change some of its policies regarding public documents.

“I also hope that the town organizes their system of how they store, log and categorize records,” Keesee said.

In response to Keesee’s allegations against the town, town attorney Brian Edes said, “I don’t believe that the town’s actions were in any way related to Mr. Keesee’s request.”

Edes also said the town has made records available to Mr. Keesee at town hall on at least two occasions, and had provided Keesee with records on at least one other occasion.

Keesee hopes more people will understand that public records belong to the people.

“This stuff, you’re entitled to it by right,” he said. “You don’t have to pay a fee. You don’t have to give them your name.”

He hopes if more people request records, governments will improve the way they operate.

“If government operated with the assumption that ‘someone may come in off the street and want to see what I’m doing,’ the world would be a better place,” Keesee said.