Sunshine Week: It's about your right to know

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

The Beacon’s recent adventure into examining how local agencies respond to open records requests was eye-opening.

On our part, we learned the value of understanding, in very specific terms, exactly what it is we are looking for. Because wording among agencies may vary, we learned how important it is to clearly explain what it is we need.

We learned it’s important to have a good understanding of the public records law before going into an agency and to be prepared, at any time, to explain that to the individuals who have the records we want.

Through our journey we learned although in many cases the law does not require the public to make open records requests in writing, it might often be the best way as it ensures there is little confusion between the requesting party and those who have what we wanted to know.

One of the most exciting parts of this journey was learning how many agencies not only were versed in the law, but were kind, friendly and willing to respond right away. Agencies like the Brunswick County Board of Elections, the sheriff’s office, the parks and recreation department, the health department and others earned gold stars for their efforts to provide requested documents to the public.

We were sadly disappointed with other agencies that did not comply with our requests or the law, and also had far too many reasons as to why they did not. In at least one case, one law enforcement official blatantly denied what we were legally bound to by saying he didn’t think his agency should furnish “countless reports to countless people.”

The law is the law, and it doesn’t matter what officials in charge of public records think about it. When the law says a public record must be released to the public, it must be. And this goes for all tax-paying citizens, not just the media.

While furnishing information to the media is an important step in getting information to the public, everyday citizens should know, with confidence, they have the ability to walk into any government agency in Brunswick County and get the information they are entitled to.

We learned some agencies would try to hide behind the veil of secrecy, saying items requested are confidential. The law clearly explains what items can be withheld, and if an agency attempts to do so, it must explain how public records law does not cover that particular item.

Our biggest concern throughout this project was with the number of people who we encountered who did not know if they could release what we asked for and didn’t know how to provide access to that information.

We urge all government officials from mayors and town administrators to police chiefs and department heads to learn more about public records law. It is then their responsibility to either make sure those on their staff—from the receptionist on up—either know where to get the information or exactly where to point them.

And most importantly, as dictated by the law, no citizen who makes a public records request is required to identify him or herself—or to provide an official form of identification.

The law is the law and we hope our project this week has shone light on it. We hope in the future more open government and easy access is right at the fingertips of all Brunswick County residents.