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Just 25 days after North Carolina Governor Mike Easley proclaimed March 20, 2008 “Sunshine Day” in North Carolina, nine media organizations filed a lawsuit against him for refusing to comply with public records law.
Sunshine Day is part of the nationwide celebration of “Sunshine Week,” a week that highlights citizens’ rights to public records.
The Sunshine Laws and North Carolina Public Records Laws exist to ensure the public has the right to access government documents.
According to General Statute 132 a public record “shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic dataee'processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.
“Agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions shall mean and include every public office, public officer or official (State or local, elected or appointed), institution, board, commission, bureau, council, department, authority or other unit of government of the State or of any county, unit, special district or other political subdivision of government.”
All records are public unless there is a law stating otherwise—e-mails and personal notes included. Destroying these records is illegal and violators may be charged with a misdemeanor.
After several requests from the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, the governor’s office failed to furnish public records that pertained to the state’s mental health services. The plaintiffs include the North Carolina Press Association, the Associated Press, The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, and five other media outlets.
The requested records were known to be in existence based on the affidavit of Debbie Crane, former Health and Human Services public affairs director, and other information obtained by the plantiffs.
In her affidavit, Crane claims that while employed with the Department of Health and Human Services, press office representatives urged employees to communicate mainly via telephone, particularly about controversial issues, to avoid creating any records that would fall under the public records law.
She also claims employees were ordered to delete all e-mails they received immediately from their sent folder, as well as their trash or deleted files to prevent the e-mails from being recorded in the nightly back-up.
Before Easley was North Carolina’s governor, he was a lawyer. Public records law and general statutes should be common knowledge for Easley. Was this a mere oversight or was this a deliberate attempt to deny access to public information?
It is difficult to imagine someone with Easley’s law background could have such a reckless disregard for the law.
Public records laws are not suggestions—they are laws, with consequences. If he knowingly hindered public access to records, he deserves to suffer the consequences.
Despite the broken laws, the worst part of this situation is the breach of trust—the trust that the citizens of North Carolina placed in an elected official.
We chose Easley to lead us and represent us. Part of his job is to make sure that the public is informed, and mental health is a hot-button issue in this state.
If he withheld information from the public, it will be hard for him to regain the people’s trust. A leader cannot be a leader unless he or she is trusted.
I keep going back to a line in the Sunshine Day Proclamation. It said “WHEREAS, I fully support the rights of North Carolinians to have access to government documents and meetings under the State’s Open Government Laws.”
The governor signed this proclamation in support of the Sunshine Laws and open government. Maybe he and his press office representatives need to get on the same page.
RENEE SLOAN is a staff writer and page designer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email@example.com.