Public records and open meetings victories are worth the fight

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By Caroline Curran, Reporter

I had yet to really be tested two years ago when I marched up to then-county commissioners chairman David Sandifer and demanded, in the spirit of the law, he open to the public a meeting to discuss lowering Smithville Township’s tax rate for Dosher Memorial Hospital.

Anxiously, and wondering what outcome our conversation might have, I proceeded with the Beacon’s argument that, although no quorums would be met, a group of elected officials discussing public business should be open to the public.

He disagreed.

We debated the argument, but ultimately, he said they were not required to open the meeting and therefore would not do so. I gave each commissioner a letter from myself and managing editor Stacey Manning urging the meeting’s opening in the spirit of the law and an open and transparent government.

Still nothing.

But then, the next morning, the county attorney called me to make sure I received the notice the meeting would be open to the public.

We considered this a small victory in the fight for transparency, because, while the press attended the meeting, there were no Smithville Township taxpayers—the very people the outcome of the meeting would affect—in attendance.

Another newspaper editorialized about the meeting, even saying commissioners were evading the law, so they probably relished in thinking their words opened the meeting.

But when I walked into the meeting, Sandifer said, in a way only he could and in a way that makes me wish he were still alive, “Well, kiddo, looks like you did it.”

Trying not to get caught up with my newfound confidence and overwhelming sense of pride in the situation, I replied we simply wanted public business discussed in public.

It should be, but it’s not always as simple as “ask and you shall receive” when requesting public records or demanding open meetings.

Yes, the law is on your side; yes, you must be given the information you seek; yes, it is illegal to withhold public records from inspection; yes, you get the picture.

But people still deny, delay and drag out public records requests. In my various pursuits of public records, I’ve been called names like snake and a derogatory term of mentally handicapped—and by law enforcement officers, no less.

I’ve been told I was “getting punked” when I called a town manager to ask why he didn’t furnish a public records request from a local resident who contacted me about the town’s antics.

I received a call from a reporter from Burke County asking for my advice in requesting public records from that county’s board of education. The board’s attorney denied his request for e-mails from board members’ school system e-mail addresses with the subject “This might be racist, but it is still funny.”

The attorney argued they were personal e-mails and not subject to the public records law.

Clearly, there’s a lot wrong with that situation.

The e-mails are public record, but what’s more disturbing is Burke County taxpayers are paying for their school board members to disseminate hateful and harmful material.

Then the attorney told him it would be $1,200 for the e-mails he could furnish, improperly citing the law that allows some fees for public records, usually in the 10-50 cents per-page range, and never for any overhead like personnel costs or supplies.

I told the reporter not to pay one cent and call an attorney.

Just yesterday, I received an e-mail from a Calabash woman who requested an incident report from the Oak Island Police Department in March. She attached her original request in the e-mail and said her two-and-a-half-month-old request had yet to be furnished.

When I called police chief Van Eddinger for a comment, he said the detective to whom the woman made the request has been off duty for months on medical leave but said a sergeant has been in contact with her and is “going to get her what she needs.”