Sunshine Week: Shining a light on public information

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Public records and open meetings laws in North Carolina exist for one reason—to ensure that government is conducted in the open.

Public business, according to state law, must be done in public.

The public’s access to the government process, whether it’s access to meetings or to information or documents, is a right, not a privilege.

While there are nine specific, and likely overused, provisions that allow public bodies to convene in closed session, action must be taken in open session.

I have made it my business to know these laws; to know when public bodies may retreat to closed session, to know what information I am entitled before I even request it.

I have studied these laws and know under which general statute information I request must be delivered. But I don’t abuse these laws.

I also made it my business to know under what guidelines records are not open to the public, which is equally as important.

Certain confidential information about government employees remains confidential to protect the employees, and while I often wish I was entitled to more information about these employees, I respect and understand the law that governs their privacy.

During an investigation, certain materials or evidence of that investigation do not become public record until the investigation is complete.

This is to protect the integrity of the investigation, which should never be compromised.

Of course when reporting on investigations, I often wish more evidence was public record, but never to the detriment of the investigation.

I have been fortunate in dealing with sources on my beats. I have developed good working relationships with these people and have had little, if any, trouble seeking public records from its custodians on my beats.

But the law is not to make it easy for me to obtain public records; it guarantees access to anyone who wants the information.

We at the Beacon pride ourselves on delivering our readers with thorough, comprehensive and accurate news. Many stories we write would not be as thorough or complete if we did not utilize public records and open meetings laws.

Before publishing a story, we not only cross every T and dot every I, but we make sure that we have utilized all resources available to the public to get the most information possible in our stories.

Next week we, and many other news agencies across the country, will recognize Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week was created by a group of newspaper editors in Florida as a week for media outlets to emphasize the public’s right to know. Sunshine Week kicks off Sunday, March 16, and continues through March 22.

Next week’s issue of the Beacon will be dedicated to Sunshine Week and the public’s right to know.

This issue will feature public records and information laws, tools on how to access public information, a sample of stories published in the Beacon that have successfully utilized public records and open meetings laws and a list of local agencies and how they complied with our public records request.

As part of our preparation for Sunshine Week, the news team went to several local agencies to request public information. Some agencies complied 100 percent, while some agencies where less than thrilled to deliver the information. Some agencies flat out denied us access to public records.

Our goal was not to trick or catch any local agencies not complying with public records laws. But it is important for these agencies to know what information they have to release when Joe Taxpayer comes knocking on their door.

We have one goal for Sunshine Week—to empower the public to know where to look and how to access records, documents or meetings that are open and available to the public.

The information is yours for the taking. You just have to know where to look.

And we at The Beacon hope to shed some light on this.

Caroline Curran is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or ccurran@brunswickbeacon.com.