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I cut my journalism teeth working in a small, rural Kentucky community where generations of my family were born, went to school, worked and died.
I rarely went out without having to talk about my last name, what part of the county I lived in and where I grew up.
More often than not someone knew my mom, my grandmother or my great-grandmother. We’re all part of a working-class family with no political ambition. People didn’t know us because of who we were, but rather because we were a part of a tight-knit community where almost everyone knew everyone else.
Admittedly, small talk about family and roots often made my job as a journalist much easier than it otherwise would have been.
In most cases, when it came to getting information I needed, I was lucky to have long-time relationships with many of the people with whom I worked. For example, when I needed to know something about one of the school systems, I called up the superintendent—the same superintendent who led the district when I was a student. Another district’s superintendent was married to a former classmate’s father, and principals and teachers were among the same who taught me and my relatives in school.
While I often smiled through being called “hun” and “kiddo,” I always got the information I needed because my sources knew who I was, and they trusted me.
Even when I asked for the tough stuff—stuff PR-types want to lock away—I generally got what I needed with little arm-wrestling.
In the first eight or so years of my career, I rarely filed an official open records request. In the cases when I did, it was because someone typically had something they didn’t want others to know, but when the formal letter was drafted and sent, the information shortly followed.
I also don’t ever recall having to take someone to task for going into closed session improperly.
To put it bluntly, I was spoiled.
When the opportunity to spread my wings and fly down here to the coast reared its head, I couldn’t pass it up. Carolina Blue skies, warm weather, and the ocean? What more could a journalist want?
I have to admit to having some preconceived notions about what people and life would be like. I naively assumed I’d walk into the same Southern hospitality of which I was accustomed, where everyone from town mayors to county government officials would say “y’all” and maybe even slip in an occasional “sure thing, hun,” a time or two.
I anticipated the coastal breeze and sunshine meant everyone here was relaxed and in a good mood, more concerned about getting out of the office and working on their tans than much else.
I was only partially right.
For many Brunswick County officials, they’re not quite as giving and forthcoming as I had hoped. Some of them are downright frigid when it comes to releasing public information.
More frequently than not, my reporters are challenging government officials about proper protocol for closed sessions. They’re repeatedly fighting to have closed-session meeting minutes released. They have become so accustomed to having to send formal open records requests to government officials, we have them at the go.
We call the North Carolina Press Association’s legal hotline so frequently, I’m glad they still answer.
The good news is the payoff is great. Twice—once for work in 2008 and again for work in 2010—the Beacon has earned North Carolina’s Henry Lee Weathers Freedom of Information Award for fighting for the community’s right to know.
While this is something we work on year-round, it’s something we give extra attention to each year at this time during Sunshine Week.
But this year, we’re doing something a little different. Instead of focusing our Sunshine Week coverage all in one issue, we’re kicking off this week a series of stories that will focus on the true cost of government here in Brunswick County.
So enjoy this issue as we shine a light on your right to know, and stick with us in the coming weeks as we continue to fight for your right to access public records and proper public meetings; it’s worth all of the hard work.